What Do the Healthiest Communities Have in Common Besides Exercise and Eating Well?
Why this man quit being emperor to be a cabbage farmer
“If you could see at Salonae the cabbages raised by our hands, you surely would never be tempted by the prospect of power ever again.” — Diocletian
It was this response that the former Roman emperor Diocletian gave, when he was encouraged by his former comrades to reclaim the throne and rule Rome once again.
He was a man who was arguably the most powerful figure on the planet, and then traded that lifestyle to become a cabbage farmer. A rather strange declaration I thought, until I found that everyone is actually the same.
The incredible health benefits of time in nature
It’s not just a trait of the famous and powerful, but I think many of us feel it too. During periods of extreme stress, there is this human draw to not just quiet, but specifically to nature.
There is a reason why many health retreats and recovery programs happen in remote mountain areas or ranches, and a reason why many of us turned to gardening during the coronavirus pandemic. We imagine beaches and mountain houses when daydreaming about retirement, and these images are stronger when we are under a lot of work or school stress. We don’t just want quiet when we’re stressed — we want to see the sky, feel grass, hear rivers, and feel air.
We heal in these spaces.
What is shinrinyoku?
There is a term for this kind of wellness practice in Japanese, and it’s called shinrinyoku (森林浴), or forest bathing. In Japan it can be prescribed by doctors, like you might be prescribed an antidepressant, to help patients cope with high levels of stress, anxiety, or grief.
This is because spending time in nature has proven health benefits, such as strengthening your immune system, lower levels of mortality and illness, decreased anxiety, and increased self confidence. It should be of little surprise that people in “Blue Zones”, places in the world where people experience particularly low rates of chronic disease and high rates of longevity, tend to have very nature-rich lifestyles. Okinawans from the village of Ogimi, one such Blue Zone, are famous for their nature-rich lifestyle full of gardening and sunshine, factors which help them keep their hearts healthy, bones strong, and a positive attitude towards life.
In Japan, this nature therapy is known as shinrinyoku, but it’s not a practice exclusive to Japan. In Norway, it’s similar to the idea of friluftsliv, and in Germany it’s similar to the idea of waldeinsamkeit. In the United States, 34 states have recognized time in nature as an effective therapy, and it can be prescribed by a doctor as treatment. I’m sure I am missing many other societies with similar words and practices.
But how much time in nature for it to be helpful?
There is no real short and fast rule, but a study conducted in 2019 found that spending at least 2 hours a week in nature was positively correlated with higher self-reports of health and wellbeing.
It was not significant if the individual was old or struggling with chronic health issues, or if the 2 hours was in one big chunk on the weekend or done in short intervals. Those who spent at least 2 hours a week in nature experienced a boost in both their physical and mental health, compared to those who didn’t.
That’s about 15 minutes a day outside — in a park, the backyard, or somewhere with grass and a few trees. All it takes is a few mindful minutes in their presence.
Just 15 minutes a day.
History doesn’t change the things that bring us peace
Some things about humans don’t change. Like eating well and getting exercise, spending time in nature is just as healing to our quality of life, no matter our culture, generation, or era. We think clearer, find peace, and boost our spirit in the outdoors — that’s an incredible power.
As much as we’ve grown to spend more time indoors and a lifestyle communicated through digital means, humans will always marvel at the joys of fresh air, the beauty of watching food grow, and the strength of moving water when we get to feel it in person. We come back to it because it makes us feel happy.
So when looking after your health, remember to eat well and get exercise, but don’t forget to spend time outside. While we may not all have backyard access to a forest or ocean, even a walk in the park, a weekend hike, a picnic, or an open window and simply letting yourself feel the sun for a bit can do wonders.
There is no medicine quite transformative like it.