How spending time in nature helps nutritional well-being

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Tue, 07/25/2017 - 8:50am
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3 months ago
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Hiking is good for well-being.

SALT LAKE CITY — Well-being is commonly defined by health experts as a state or presence of positive emotions and moods, reduction in negative emotions, as well as a sense of life satisfaction or fulfillment.

Physical well-being, in particular, can be described as feeling healthy and having the energy to enjoy daily activities. Nutritional status has also been shown to be an important contributor to well-being.

Nutritional well-being, while not a consistently defined term, might be thought of as a positive relationship with food and the experience of eating, and nourishing the body as part of self-care. This type of “normal eating" has been defined as a flexible eating style that is guided by hunger, as well as varying naturally with daily schedule, access to food, and feelings experienced.

One aspect of well-being that can affect how and what individuals eat is body image or satisfaction. According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), body image is what individuals believe about their appearance, how they feel about their body, and how they sense and control the body during movement. Body image has also been shown to affect attitude towards healthy eating.

One study found that individuals with even mild concerns with body satisfaction had lower healthy eating attitude scores than those with no body concern. In addition, positive healthy eating attitude has been shown to be associated with improved diet quality according to this same study.

Individuals with negative body image have a greater likelihood of developing an eating disorder and are more likely to suffer from feelings of depression, isolation, low self-esteem, and obsession with weight loss according to NEDA.

Given this, it makes sense that finding ways to not only improve overall well-being, but also in particular to help improve body satisfaction, could have a beneficial impact on nutritional status. In addition, with more of the population living in urban environments than ever before, the effects of time spent outdoors has become a focus of recent research related to health and well-being.

For those that enjoy spending time in nature it’s possible they’ve experienced the benefits that research has found including decreased negative states such as reduction in anxiety as well as positive, health-promoting qualities first hand.

Particularly relevant for nutritional well-being, another recent study found that spending time in nature can have a positive impact on body image. Results showed that nature exposure and connectedness to nature were associated with body appreciation in women and men, directly and indirectly through self-esteem.

According to these researchers, it's possible that greater exposure to nature focuses an individual’s attention on aspects of well-being that have less to do with personal pleasure and self-interest, and that are more connected with feelings of being a part of a larger ecosystem.

As discussed by the researchers, nature exposure and connectedness to nature also provide opportunities for emotional restoration, based on the Psychophysiological Stress Recovery Theory that may also translate to higher self-esteem. Exposure to nature has been found to be associated with higher-self esteem and higher self-esteem is associated with higher body appreciation.

Lastly, forms of pressure to conform to body ideals such as thinness for women and muscularity for men may be mitigated by exposure and connection to nature thereby reducing the influence they may have on body dissatisfaction.

The specific amount of time to be spent in nature to gain its benefits continues to be researched and there is much about the influence of being outdoors on health and well-being that requires better understanding. However, it does appear that any time spent in nature can be beneficial.

In addition, focusing attention and connecting to the body during the experience of being outside through mindfulness may allow for more enjoyment and potentially even more health benefits.

For individuals that are concerned about disordered eating or eating disorders, it's important to seek professional help to appropriately address these health conditions. Contact the NEDA helpline or talk with your doctor or other healthcare provider to find out about treatment and other resources.

For those generally interested in improving nutritional and overall well-being consider these easy ways to increase time spent outside:

1. Go for the green

Step outside even if only for a short break during the day; head towards areas with trees or a garden on the grounds of your home or work site. Bring a healthy snack to enjoy with you if you do feel hunger.

2. Get your hands in the dirt

Gardening, including growing fruits and vegetables, is a great way to spend time outside while also gaining the benefits of a healthy harvest.

3. Take a hike

Go on a day hike with family or friends or enjoy some reflective time on a solo excursion; the location doesn’t need to be remote. Many communities have local open space areas with trails that can be accessed by individuals of all abilities including those with mobility challenges.

4. Eat meals outside

Enjoy meals outdoors in the backyard or on a picnic to a local park for an opportunity to relax, soak in natural light, and breathe in the fresh air.

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