Lately, it seems like the health world has been inundated with information about why spending time in nature is good for you and trendy methods to do it. “Earthing,” or “grounding” promotes physical contact with the earth’s electrons; “shinrin-yoku” or “forest bathing” facilitates healing while immersing yourself in a forest environment; and “nature bathing” resets the body and the soul. But no matter what you call it, it all leads back to one truth: there are tangible, proven benefits of nature.
While the words can really be used interchangeably to talk about getting outdoors, proponents of earthing, or grounding, promote walking barefoot because they believe the ground can neutralize electrical potential, and therefore, potentially have some benefits. There isn’t any research to support this mechanism, but that doesn’t mean you can’t reap nature’s benefits, or that it might feel nice to take off your shoes and feel the ground.
The Japanese art of shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, on the other hand, has been extensively studied. It involves taking in nature through your senses: listening to the sounds, touching natural textures, observing the environment, and smelling a bright floral note or earthy mushroom on the forest floor. (Read: no exercise needed!) Research has found the practice can help with everything from depression and anxiety to fatigue and blood pressure. And if those activities sound too mellow for you, you can also benefit by taking your workout outside. Exercising outdoors “was associated with greater feelings of revitalization, increased energy and positive engagement, together with decreases in tension, confusion, anger, and depression,” found research in the journal Environmental Science and Technology .
This relatively rapid surge in interest in earthing and the outdoors marks an era of new consciousness among many people who realize the adverse effects of spending excessive amounts of time inside and the potentially dangerous ramifications such behavior can pose long term, says Erica Zellner , a health coach with Parsley Health in Los Angeles.
According to a study from the journal Nature , Americans spend around 93 percent of their time inside or in a car, a trend that’s likely to continue given our increasing reliance on mobile devices, streaming services, and other technology. Zellner calls this “nature deficit disorder,” a phenomenon she says has only begun to be studied by experts in the field. “We’re seeing how, from young childhood through adulthood, people aren’t spending time outside, and the mental, emotional, and physical consequences of that behavior are showing up,” she says.
But while all the esoteric nature exposure methods sound cathartic and appealing, they may also feel pretty unattainable. After all, who has time to actually “bathe” themselves in nature on a regular basis?
The truth is, all these newfangled terms overcomplicate something that’s astonishingly simple: Getting outside is good for you.
“It almost doesn’t matter what else is going on in your life at that instant. Your cortisol levels—basically the amount of stress your body and mind are experiencing—will drop by up to 20 percent just by being in nature,” Zellner says, citing a study out of Japan.
The positive impact of lowering your cortisol is profound. Studies show it can lead to slower heart rate and reduced blood pressure, a decrease in the parasympathetic nervous system, reduction in anxiety and other mental health conditions and longer-term improved health outcomes, when coupled with other healthy behaviors like diet, sleep , and movement.
And there’s more.
Zellner says one of the most important physical benefits of grounding yourself in nature is its ability to reset your circadian rhythms, according to recent research from Current Biology . “Especially in modern times, [they’re] compromised by tech and totally messed up,” she says.
Fixing sleep is essential to your wellbeing and crucial to preventing conditions that can ultimately threaten your long term health like cardiovascular disease, anxiety disorders and other conditions, research shows.
Inevitably, you’ll come into contact with germs—through people or places—or environmental stimuli—like a busy month at the office or an exhausting travel schedule—that will make you more likely to get sick. But getting outside boosts your immunity and helps to steel you against these otherwise common afflictions.
A Japanese study showed the activity of natural killer cells—the molecular agents responsible for fighting off sickness and a reliable indicator of immune function, according to the researchers—increased by as much as 56 percent after spending two days in a forest, among middle-aged participants. Elevated activity of around 23 percent remained as late as one month after.
When people spent 80 minutes walking in a forest environment at a leisurely pace, they decreased their scores for depression and anxiety, and both adrenaline and dopamine levels decreased, indicating a calming effect, research found.
Additional research from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences even discovered a reduction in brain activity in the portion of the brain that’s linked to risk for mental illness, called the subgenual prefrontal cortex. Participants also reported less rumination, or repeated negative thoughts during their 90-minute walk in nature. The catch? The same results did not hold true for participants who walked outdoors in an urban environment.
It takes about 20 minutes for something like the reduction in cortisol to kick in, says Zellner, otherwise, your body doesn’t have time to register there’s been a change in environment. For that reason, she recommends getting in at least 20 minutes at a time.
When you return indoors your body won’t be immune to triggers that bring those stress levels back up, but over time you will begin to develop subconscious physiological coping mechanisms that reduce their impact.
“Our bodies thrive on routine,” Zellner says. So making a habit of spending time outside will ultimately condition your body to adjust to any triggers it may encounter. “The thing that used to cause a major cortisol spike will eventually only cause a moderate cortisol spike,” she says.
It’s important to note that not all time outside is created equal. A 20-minute walk on a busy city sidewalk isn’t going to bring you the same impacts as equal time on a trail run.
But that certainly doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try, Zellner says. “The human mind is incredibly resilient. You’ll see benefits in the same vein as getting serious outdoor exposure if you change your routine even a little bit.”
Small adjustments every day, like eating your lunch in a courtyard or walking to work instead of taking the subway, will build a habit of prioritizing getting out of your everyday rut. This allows you to reap some of the benefits of nature without a major time commitment. But recognize that, whenever possible, you should use larger windows of free time to get outside.
“Drive out of the city and take a weekend hike, or sit in the grass to picnic or read,” she says.”
What’s more, your “green space” doesn’t actually need to be green. Wallace Nichols, a marine biologist whose book Blue Minds untapped a wealth of knowledge about the benefits of aquatic environments on our physical, mental and emotional health.
The sight and sound of water can help you relax and have major health benefits.
Nichols’ research concluded that a “deep biological connection” to water — derived from the fact that it makes up 70 percent of our bodies and covers over 70 percent of the earth’s surface — makes being near it an almost surefire way to significantly improve perceived physical health, instill mental calm, and trigger a meditative state that makes us happier. One study even showed living by the coast improved overall wellbeing for a small group living in England.
But if coastal living or weekly trips to a lake aren’t options, don’t despair. Nichols told Quartz that many of the positive consequences of exposure to aquatic environments can be replicated in less “natural” environments like a swimming pool or just by listening to the sound of a fountain. “The mere sight and sound of water can induce a flood of neurochemicals that promote wellness, increase blood flow to the brain and heart and induce relaxation.”
What’s even more important than the exact environment you’re able to enter on a regular basis is the intention behind your time in nature. It’s important to be present, Zellner says. “Take note of what’s around you. Stand on the ground and feel the grass, smell the fresh air, listen to the birds, engage multiple senses. Just be mindful and note how you’re showing up,” she says.
It’s not just the sensation of touch that triggers your body’s positive physiological response to nature. The sight smells and sounds of nature can do the same thing, according to Zellner. “Any connection to nature promotes lower cortisol levels and greater wellbeing, really anything that’s a physical reminder of the natural world can actually give you a lot of powerful benefits,” she adds.
The Scandivanian Journal of Forest Research proved that workers saw an uptick in their job satisfaction and a downturn in work-related stress. Zellner recommends opening up a window during a meeting, getting a fish tank or plant to put on your desk or even playing a soundtrack of nature sounds in your bedroom or office.
Essential oils, Zellner says, provide an easy way to replicate the energizing forces of earthing while still in your home or your office. She recommends orange and grapefruit, both of which provide clarity. Another study from the Journal of Physiology, Anthropology and Applied Human Sciences gives additional options, too. The researched demonstrated correlation between the inhalation of lavender, eugenol, chamomile and sandalwood, can lead to increased feelings of comfort.
In other words, there’s room for personal preference. “It’s whatever resonates with you, Zellner says.
Carly Graf is a San Francisco-based journalist with experience covering health, fitness, social justice, and human rights. She graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism with a graduate degree and a focus in social justice reporting. Her work has been published in the Chicago Reader, YES!, South Side Weekly, and Social Justice News Nexus, Outside Magazine, and Shape. When she's not reporting, she's almost certainly running or playing in the mountains with her dog, Chaco (yes, like the sandal).