Dr. Day is a cardiologist/electrophysiologist at the Intermountain Medical Center Heart Institute in Salt Lake City, Utah. He graduated from Johns Hopkins Medical School and completed his residency and fellowships in cardiology and electrophysiology at Stanford University. He is the former president of the Heart Rhythm Society and currently serves as the president of the Utah chapter of the American College of Cardiology.
4 Ways Time in Nature Extends Life
A recently published study reports that the more green space there is within 820 feet of your home, the longer you will live. In this article, I review this study and the scientific evidence that nature extends life. Armed with this information, I also share some real simple strategies that could not only add years to your life but more health and happiness as well.
Jeff recently came to see me for a second opinion. Jeff was struggling with a heart condition known as atrial fibrillation.
With atrial fibrillation, the heart is out of rhythm. This causes a rapid and irregular pulse. Not only does an out of rhythm heart make people feel poorly but it also increases their risk of stroke, heart failure, and dementia.
“How often do you get outside?” I asked.
“Rarely, if ever. Between my work and family responsibilities, there just isn’t any time,” Jeff replied.
It was at that time that it suddenly hit me. Jeff’s life was completely out of rhythm from the way we were designed to live. If his life was out of rhythm, how could we expect his heart to be in rhythm?
The Exposure to Nature and Risk of Death Study
In a recent study, Harvard University researchers wanted to understand the link between time in nature and risk of death. To answer this question, researchers studied 108,630 nurses.
In order to estimate the impact of nature on longevity, researchers measured the amount of “greenery” surrounding their homes. This was done based on satellite images looking for any green vegetation within 820 feet (250 m) and 0.8 miles of their homes (1250 m).
To put this study into perspective, most of these nurses lived in metropolitan areas in or around Boston. As there were so many things that could throw off the results of a study like this, these Harvard researchers adjusted for other factors that are known to affect longevity like age, ethnicity, smoking, and socioeconomic status.
Findings of the Time in Nature and Longevity Study
After following these 108,630 nurses for 8 years, these researchers came up with some very interesting findings. Below are the six key findings of this study:
1. People with the most green vegetation around their house had a 12% lower risk of dying during the study.
2. There was no difference in your survival advantage if the greenery was within 820 feet (250 m) or 0.8 miles (1,250 m) of your home.
3. Having “nature” near your home was associated with much a much lower cancer and lung disease risk.
4. Physically active nurses with a lot of green vegetation near their homes enjoyed the greatest life extending benefits.
5. Whether you lived inside or outside of a city didn’t seem to affect longevity.
6. Having greenery near your home increased your chances of never being on an anti-depressant, exercising regularly, having more social connections, and breathing less polluted air.
4 Ways Time in Nature Extends Life
Based on the findings of this study, these Harvard researchers proposed four reasons why nature extends life. While I am confident there are many other reasons why nature extends life, below are the four ways they came up with:
1. Green vegetation makes us happy.
Quite remarkably, how much greenery was near your house also predicted whether or not you would ever need an antidepressant. This finding raises the question that one potential cause of depression may be that modern life has us trying to live in a way that we were not designed to live.
Fortunately, this is something that is very easy to fix. While moving isn’t an option for most people, you could easily fill your yard, house, or office with plants. Surround your living space with living green things certainly has a lot less side effects than taking an antidepressant.
As a disclaimer, don’t ever stop a medication you were prescribed based on anything you read on this website. I only share general information, not medical advice, with each article that I write. Please discuss anything you read with your own healthcare provider.
2. Nature makes you more physically active.
Being physically active is hard for many of my patients. Whether it is from automobiles, elevators, or television remote controls, modern life has completely engineered physical activity out of our lives.
We all know physical activity is one of the most important things when it comes to health, happiness, and longevity. Indeed, studies show that physical activity can make us almost 10 years younger.
If you find it hard to be physically active, a simple hack may be to increase the green vegetation around you. Based on the results of this study, living near green space may subconsciously help you to increase your time outside and physical activity.
Thus, if you are not as physically active as you should be, spend more time outside. Escape from your home or office as much as you can.
Instead of going to the gym everyday, try mixing it up with some outdoor exercise activities. For family vacations, select locations that will get you in nature.
3. Green vegetation increases social connectivity
For reasons that aren’t fully understood, these Harvard researchers also reported that the more greenery that exists near your home the more socially connected you are likely to be. Perhaps this is because if you have green vegetation you will probably be outside where you could strike up a conversation with a friend or neighbor.
As I have discussed in previous articles, social connectivity is the glue that holds us together. It is also something that is required for a healthy and long life.
People who make it to age 100 and beyond are often surrounded by many close social connections. Indeed, studies show that when it comes to longevity, social connectivity may be more important than whether or not you are overweight or smoke.
A simple fix to boost social connectivity would be to grow something in your yard. If you don’t have a yard, then grow something on your balcony or inside a window. As you are caring for these plants you will undoubtedly connect with other people.
4. Plants purify the air we breathe.
Air pollution is a huge risk to our hearts and our longevity. Studies show that breathing polluted air can rob us of up to five years of life. While outside air pollution has tremendous health risks, reports from the Environmental Protection Agency in the U.S. indicate that the indoor air we breathe may be two to five times worse than what is outside.
When it comes to cleaning our air, we need more green vegetation. While having green vegetation outside of our homes is important, it may even be more important to have plants inside of our homes and work environments.
This is why the U.S. space agency (NASA) spent millions of dollars in a study looking at how plants can purify our air. This NASA study showed that plants are very effective in eliminating toxic chemicals like benzene, formaldehyde and trichloroethylene from the air. In addition, they showed that plants can help to neutralize the effects of sick building syndrome.
Once again, there is another easy fix here. Plant as much green stuff in your yard, your home, and your office as you possibly can. Let plants clean your air naturally.
China’s Longevity Village and Time in Nature
Based on our five year study of the residents in China’s Longevity Village, we concluded that their complete immersion with nature played a key role in their health, happiness, and longevity. As this village has the highest percentage of centenarians in the world, it was pretty clear to us that nature extends life. If you want to learn more about our findings, it is all described in our new book, The Longevity Plan.
Inspired by what we learned in this Village, our family has set out on a new adventure. We are now trying “homesteading.”
While I still work at the same hospital, we recently moved to an old farm in the mountains. Currently, we are fixing up this old farm and are hoping to be as self-sufficient as possible in living off the land.
The Big Picture
The reason why I selected this study to review is that it serves as a great reminder that we all need to spend more time in nature. Just as we need air, water, and food we also need living green things around us. Our bodies weren’t designed to be trapped inside buildings.
My challenge to you this week is to either spend more time in nature or create more nature around you. Ideally, you will do both.
I would love to hear from you. How important has nature been to your health and happiness? Please leave your thoughts and questions below.
Disclaimer Policy: This website is intended to give general information and does not provide medical advice. This website does not create a doctor-patient relationship between you and Dr. John Day. If you have a medical problem, immediately contact your healthcare provider. Information on this website is not intended to diagnose or treat any condition. Dr. John Day is not responsible for any losses, damages or claims that may result from your medical decisions.