Does nature have restorative powers when it comes to health?

Wolgan Valley.

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How’s the serenity?” our mate Darryl Kerrigan from The Castle would say, if he were sitting here. “So much serenity, Daz,” I would reply, taking in the sprawling valley where I am sitting. I’m surrounded by 300-metre-high sheer sandstone escarpments, which throw waterfalls during heavy rain, and eucalypt forest dotted with ancient black cypress pines.

The silence is punctuated with the gentle song of some of the 152 different bird species in this 2830-hectare wildlife conservation area in the Greater Blue Mountains region in NSW. Eastern grey kangaroos recline, sunning their bellies, while the wombats, whose top speed of 40 kilometres an hour makes them almost as fast as Usain Bolt, graze lazily.

It’s often not until we pause that we realise how ragged our lives have become. Without proper breaks we’re less productive, creative and – speaking for myself – more connected to phones and computers than our surroundings or the people we’re close to. Being in nature is a remedy for much of this, yet most people in developed countries spend 90 per cent of their time indoors.

Our body clock is powered by natural light, which resets our circadian rhythm each day, stimulating hormones that energise us during the day and help us settle into the night. Nature also has the power to relieve stress, improve concentration and give our immune system a boost. One study from this year found that those who could readily see birds, trees and greenery were less likely to suffer from depression, anxiety and stress.

As already mentioned, I am surrounded by forests. And I’m having no trouble on the bird front, either. Red-rumped parrots swoop and sulphur-crested cockatoos squawk in front of me, a falcon glides above, and the haunting cry of black cockatoos echoes in the distance. Cacophony and peace.

Claire Henderson-Wilson, a senior lecturer and co-leader of the Health Nature and Sustainability Research Group at Victoria’s Deakin University, says the profound effect nature has on us may be explained by the biophilia hypothesis.

“There exists an innate, or genetic, emotional connection between most people and living organisms,” says Henderson-Wilson, explaining our need for green surroundings. “According to biologist E.O. Wilson, the hypothesis infers that people are linked to the natural environment emotionally, cognitively, aesthetically and even spiritually.”

She says being immersed in nature can also restore people mentally. “[Research suggests] the sensory overload experienced by many urban residents means recovery from mental fatigue is important to their quality of life. A restorative or natural environment fosters recovery from such mental fatigue so people can feel rejuvenated by walking in nature.”

Here, where a pause seems to expand in time, the air is fresh and there is no sound of cars, no phone reception or other people, I implicitly understand what nature can do for us. I am in the bush at the spectacular Wolgan Valley resort, admittedly in the lap of luxury. After a blissful massage in their sanctuary of a spa, I melt into the massage table, so relaxed and cocooned with care I can barely peel myself off. But for me, some simple bush camping elicits a similar sense of serenity and space and solitude – luxuries in an increasingly busy, crowded environment.

Research has shown that hospital patients who have a leafy outlook tend to heal faster and need less medication than those looking at a brick wall. Henderson-Wilson says people who spend 30 minutes or more in green spaces each week are less likely to experience high blood pressure or depression. Nature nurtures the elemental inside of us. It really only takes getting outside and taking a walk on the wild side to experience the effects for ourselves.

Get that natural feeling

• Take your lunch break in the park instead of at your desk.

• Try “green exercise” and take your workout outdoors.

• When you can’t get out to enjoy nature, bring it to you using indoor plants and, wherever you can, by sitting near a window with exposure to natural light.

The writer was a guest of Emirates One&Only Wolgan Valley.

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