Nature When You Need It

Nature When You Need It

Urbana Parks: Nature When You Need It

Fresh air, exercise, walking, and enjoying nature is important to mental, physical and spiritual health. Now more than ever it is an important time to get out and explore your Urbana parks. Being in nature can inspire a sense of awe as well as offer short-term and long-term benefits for your health.

(The following text is adapted from a post titled “Access to Parks and the Outdoors is Crucial for Mental Health in Our Communities” written by Teresa L. Penbrooke, PhD, CPRE, the Director of the Healthy Communities Research Group for GP RED and CEO and Founder of GreenPlay. Her full post was originally published by The National Recreation and Park Association on March 20, 2020.)

Research over the years has shown that when people are more stressed, anxious and socially isolated, as we are right now due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, having access to parks, trails and natural areas becomes even more important. As stated on the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) website regarding managing stress and mental anxiety around the pandemic:

“The outbreak of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) may be stressful for people. Fear and anxiety about a disease can be overwhelming and cause strong emotions in adults and children. Coping with stress will make you, the people you care about, and your community stronger.”

CDC reports that stress caused or aggravated by the outbreak can result in fear and worry about your health and the health of loved ones, changing in sleeping and eating patterns, difficulty concentrating, worsening of chronic health problems, and an increase in the use of alcohol, tobacco or other drugs.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in five U.S. adults experiences mental illness each year. With twenty percent of the population already directly impacted by mental illness, and elevated levels of stress, anxiety and uncertainty due to the COVID-19 outbreak impacting all of us, it’s imperative that people find ways to prioritize their mental health and manage the stress of this pandemic in positive ways.

To cope with stress, CDC recommends taking breaks from watching the news or reading about the pandemic, taking care of your body by being physically active, eating healthy, getting plenty of sleep, stretching or practicing meditation, staying engaged in activities you enjoy and staying connected to others even though we are physically distancing from each other.

Spending time in parks, on trails, and in open spaces and natural areas is another effective way to cope. The Urbana Park District offers a creative park and recreation system that includes the following natural areas you invited to explore (click on the link to view the District’s comprehensive and most current listings):

Research on the Mental Health Benefits of the Outdoors

There is ample research that supports the positive impact of the environment on diseases and health, including mental health. Some research has increasingly focused on the cognitive (thinking capabilities) or attentional benefits of nature experiences. Patterns have emerged which suggest that living in a place with more nature produces more mental restoration, and is likely to benefit cognitive functioning and attentional capacity. Dr. Nancy Wells is an environmental psychologist and professor at Cornell University who studies people’s relationship to the built and natural environment throughout one’s health. An interesting paper by Wells and colleagues on the natural environment and disease transmission, is just one of many papers focused on identifying how mental health, behavior, and thought processes can be improved through time outdoors. More literature on the benefits of children and nature can found through the Children and Nature Network

Access to and views of water, now referred to bluespace, may have an even greater effect on reducing psychological distress for some people. Bluespace includes water bodies such as lakes, oceans, and rivers, and may also include larger pools and even smaller human-made features such as water fountains or spraygrounds. Wallace J. Nichols wrote a book in 2014 called Blue Mind which includes compiled references on the mental, physical, and psychological benefits from access to water. Anecdotally I know that for me as a “water person”, even just standing next to the ocean is a major stress reliever. You can enjoy bluespace in Urbana at Crystal Lake Park.

Research also shows that exposure to parks and natural environments benefits us not only directly, but can also come even through windows. There is currently a broad effort to answer questions about how much time is needed (exposures and the dosage of nature) to promote mental health. Total exposure seems to be most important, but all forms and quantities of exposure to greenspace appear to be helpful.

One way nature exposure might be of benefit is through an effect on rumination, which is a pattern of thought that is associated with heightened risk for depression and other mental illnesses. Think of how you can sometimes get a negative thought stuck in your head and just replay it over and over. Studies show that in healthy participants a brief nature experience, such as a 45 to 90-minute walk in a natural setting, decreases rumination and other negative brain activities, whereas a walk in an urban setting may not. Having accessible natural areas in urban contexts may be a critical resource for mental health in our overly stressed world.

Social Distancing in Public Parks and Trails

Everyone is welcome to enjoy Urbana parks, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Fresh air, exercise, walking, and enjoying nature is important to mental, physical, and spiritual health. Keep up with current Urbana Park District COVID-19 policies and guidelines on here.

Image Credit: National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA)