The pandemic has proven to be a real-time exercise in how to manage our anxiety and fears during a period of extraordinary confusion and uncertainty. One clear message has emerged from this: nature is a formidable antidote to many of today’s ills. Recent and abundant research explains incontrovertibly why it is so.
Neuroscientists, psychologists, medical doctors, biologists and microbiologists, specialists of physical performance, economists, social scientists: all in their respective fields can now explain why nature makes us feel good, how it eases physical and psychological pain and why it is associated with so many benefits in terms of physical and mental wellbeing. Conversely, they can also show why being separated from nature in all its richness and variety – wildlife, trees, animals and plants – negatively affects our minds, our bodies, our emotional lives and our mental health.
Longing for greenery
COVID-19 and the constant reminders on the part of health authorities to walk or exercise every day to keep in shape place these considerations front and centre. So did the myriad of individual testimonies during the lockdown showing how much people in cities were longing for greenery: a forest, a park, a garden or just a tree. Even in the countries with the strictest lockdown regimes like France, health authorities insisted on the need to spend some time outside every day.
In the post-pandemic era, much fewer people will ignore the centrality and the essential role of nature in our lives. The pandemic made this awareness possible at scale (since now almost everybody in the world knows about this). This will create more profound and personal connections at an individual level with the macro points about the preservation of our ecosystems and the need to produce and consume in ways that are respectful of the environment. We now know that without access to nature and all it has to offer in terms of biodiversity, our potential for physical and mental wellbeing is gravely impaired.
Immunity and Inflammation
Throughout the pandemic, we were reminded that rules of social distancing, hand washing and mask wearing (plus self-isolation for the most vulnerable people) are the standard tools to protect ourselves from COVID-19. Yet, two other essential factors that are strongly contingent upon our exposure to nature also play a vital role in our physical resilience to the virus: immunity and inflammation. Both contribute to protecting us, but immunity decreases with age while inflammation does the opposite: it increases.
To improve our chances of resisting the virus, immunity must be boosted and inflammation suppressed. What part has nature to play in this scenario? She is the leading lady the science now tells us! The low-level of constant inflammation experienced by our bodies leads to all sorts of diseases and disorders, ranging from cardiovascular conditions to depression and reduced immune capabilities. This residual inflammation is more prevalent among people who live in cities, urban environments and industrialised areas. It is now established that a lack of connection with nature is a contributing factor to greater inflammation, with studies showing that just two hours spent in a forest can alleviate inflammation by lowering cytokine levels (a marker of inflammation).
All this boils down to lifestyle choices: not only the time we spend in nature, but also what we eat, how we sleep, how much we exercise: these are choices that point to an encouraging observation: age does not have to be a fatality. Ample research shows that together with nature, diet and physical exercise can slow, even sometimes reverse, our biological decline. There is nothing fatalistic about it! Exercise, nature, non-processed food... They all have the dual benefit of improving immunity and suppressing inflammation.
The reset for individuals: the pandemic has drawn our attention to the importance of nature, and going forward, paying more attention to our natural assets will progressively become paramount.