The Power of Nature

A piece of advice that I was given during my training with Operation Flinders was ‘nature does 90% of the work’. This resonated powerfully with me. In my early 20s I climbed my way out of a self-inflicted hole riding a Mountain Bike acquired via a trade with one of my dodgy mates. Toiling up hills against nature,  inhaling lung-full after lung-full of crisp, clean air was the catalyst for me righting the direction of my life. What I have learnt since is that it was not the battle against the wild that was so critical for me, it was the immersion in it.

The Science of Greenspace

There is a mountain of evidence proving the myriad health benefits of what the researchers call, ‘Greenspace Exposure’. A systematic review by Twohig-Bennet & Jones (2018) detailed the following benefits of Greenspace Exposure across the 143 studies included in their paper:

  • Decreased heart rate.
  • Decreased diastolic blood pressure.
  • Improvements in Heart Rate Variability (HRV).
  • Decreased risk of type 2 diabetes.
  • Decreased all-cause mortality.
  • Decreased cardiovascular mortality.
  • Decreased incidence of stroke, hypertension, dyslipidemia, asthma and coronary artery disease.

Furthermore, a systematic review by Wendelboe-Nelson et al (2019) found that approximately 70% of the 263 studies included in their paper reported a positive effect of Greenspace Exposure on Mental Health and Well-Being. This followed a 2018 Systematic Review of Greenspace Exposure on Children’s and Adolescents Mental Health (Vanaken and Dackaerts). This study highlighted the following benefits in young people:

  • Reductions in hyperactivity.
  • Improved attention.
  • Reduced depressive symptoms.

To sum it up, our mind and body are tremendously grateful to us when we spend time in nature.

Watching it in action

I would not define the young people’s experience with Operation Flinders as ‘Greenspace Exposure’. Rather, it was a week of complete immersion in a wild, rugged and potentially dangerous environment.

Hydration and skin protection against the heat of days was of paramount importance. Then we rugged up and built shelter to fend off the cold and wet of night.

At lunch we’d sit and watch falcons work as a team to hunt a flock of finches. Then marvel at small rock pools filled with fish the size of my hands. How the hell did they get in there? We’d also keep small creatures for company at night- some with four legs, some with six, some with eight!

We would have our minds blown by gazing up and the stars at night and attempting to comprehend the reality of what we were looking at.

Over the course of the week, there was a clear change in all of the boys. Despite the mounting fatigue there was a loosening, a lightening. Conversations became more relaxed, but also deeper. There was more laughter and more tears as the week progressed. It was their toil in nature that did this.

The Critical Factor

Up at Yankaninna Station, there is no telephone and internet coverage. The boys were told to not bring their phones- most complied, but those that disregarded that advice had devices that could really only function as cameras, and could not be recharged. They were forced to disconnect from their online world, and spend a week wholly in the real world. This disconnection from the internet is crucial if you are to reap the rewards of ‘Greenspace Exposure’. If Operation Flinders ensured full internet coverage and recharge facilities for all of their participants I am confident the program would not be nearly as effective.

When I am out hiking, running or riding out in one of Adelaide’s beautiful conservation parks I am always a little dismayed when I see people with earphones in, or sitting and scrolling. If you do this, you are leaving so many benefits of your time outdoors on the table. Take your phone with you, but only as a safety device, not an entertainment device.

Nature has provided you with a symphony of sounds and spectrum of colours for you to enjoy. I urge you to show your gratitude by giving nature your full attention.

Twohig-Bennett, C., & Jones, A. (2018). The health benefits of the great outdoors: A systematic review and meta-analysis of greenspace exposure and health outcomes. Environmental research166, 628-637.

Vanaken, G. J., & Danckaerts, M. (2018). Impact of green space exposure on children’s and adolescents’ mental health: A systematic review. International journal of environmental research and public health15(12), 2668.

Wendelboe-Nelson, C., Kelly, S., Kennedy, M., & Cherrie, J. W. (2019). A scoping review mapping research on green space and associated mental health benefits. International journal of environmental research and public health16(12), 2081.