June is Great Outdoors month, time for “a breath of fresh air”. Who hasn’t used this phrase in response to a welcome change? Yet we don’t get nearly enough of those breaths of fresh air. The Oxford Dictionary, in an illustrative definition of the idiom, notes: “50 per cent of workers never leave the office for a breath of fresh air.” Surveys suggest that Hong Kong residents spend 85 per cent of their time indoors, and in Europe and the United States, that figure can rise above 90 per cent. That’s a really bad thing. Because getting out into the open – especially getting out into nature – is really, really good for us. We are currently living in the largest mass migration – to the indoors – in our history Florence Williams, author So good for us that doctors in Canada prescribe time in nature, “not as a sick note”, says Vancouver family physician Dr Melissa Lem, director of PaRx (Park Prescriptions Canada), rather “as a note for better health”. The standard recommendation, she says, based on the latest research, is at least two hours a week in a natural environment – a park, a beach, a garden – and at least 20 minutes each time. And yet humans “are currently more disconnected from nature than at any time in our evolution”, says Florence Williams, who wrote The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative . “When we spend more time indoors, we face increasing incidence of health conditions like obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease , depression, anxiety and other stress-related illnesses,” she says. Get outside, though, and stress hormones drop off, blood pressure goes down, heart rate steadies – and hopefully we get off those little devices of ours. Nature therapy explained: how it eases stressed minds, bodies Nature’s good for a whole host of complaints, says Lem, “from chronic diseases like hypertension and diabetes to mental health conditions like anxiety and depression. “Children who spend more time outdoors have reduced ADHD [attention deficit hyperactivity disorder] symptoms, healthier body weights and even better eyesight. There’s almost no health condition that nature time doesn’t make better.” We belong in nature, Lem concludes: “Our brains and bodies haven’t quite caught up to how quickly our built urban structures have evolved.” Williams agrees. “Most people in the world live in cities, and by 2050, 70 per cent of us will. We are currently living in the largest mass migration – to the indoors – in our history.” Brandy-Joe Milliron, an associate professor in Nutrition Sciences at Drexel University in Pennsylvania in the US and one of the authors of a recent study on the benefits of nature, advocates “nature relatedness”, defined simply as feeling connected to nature. She describes three types of the relationship: indirect (admiring a view, say); incidental (interaction with nature as an unintended result of another activity – walking to work through a park, for example); and intentional (visiting a botanical garden or hiking ). Research has shown that intentional interaction with nature such as through gardening is associated with greater fruit and vegetable consumption – which yields a double whammy health benefit. And talking double whammy: it’s not just getting into the great outdoors that’s good for us. It’s getting out of the city – or getting into the blue or green bits of it. Lem explains: “Busy urban environments tire out our powers of attention and make it harder for us to recover from stress . On the other hand, nature is a source of soft fascination that restores our brain’s ability to focus and reduces stress, and when your brain is happy , your body functions better, too. “Spending time in nature also exposes you to volatile organic compounds from trees and plants called phytoncides, antimicrobial compounds, as well as healthy bacteria, which boost immune function. That’s why we call nature the fourth pillar of health, along with a good diet , sleep and exercise .” You don’t have to escape to the jungle to benefit from being outside, says Professor Martin Wong, of the JC School of Public Health and Primary Care at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. His study examined the value of “urban blue spaces” on the well-being of Hong Kong residents – “beaches, swimming pools and any environment with still or running water”. Being near these blue spaces may help to boost mental and physical health , by relieving stress and encouraging exercise. Higher visibility of blue space, Wong adds, has previously been found to be significantly associated with lower psychological distress – even if it’s just seeing that body of water from a view through a window. Blue space exposure – being near water – was especially beneficial to older people partly because it “promoted feelings of renewal, restoration, and spiritual connectedness”. But blue spaces are also ideal for social connection and gatherings of many generations – vital in an often isolated older community. Accessibility to everyday green and blue spaces, says Wong, encourages the elderly to simply get out the door. This in turn motivates them to be active physically, spiritually and socially, which can offset chronic illness, disability and isolation. In Hong Kong, there are more than 40 gazetted beaches managed by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department and 43 swimming pools, Wong notes, and he urges people to make time to visit them regularly. While writing her book, Williams says the most revealing thing she learned about nature was that it not only makes us healthier, “it also makes us feel more connected to other people and to the world around us”. She cites a study that examines the feel-good factor people experience in natural versus urban environments, and it was greater than the difference they experienced from being alone to being with friends. Nature isn’t just good for us, she says, “it’s good for civilisation”. Brandy-Joe Milliron’s tips for connecting better with nature Grow and tend plants indoors and outdoors. This takes practice, but it’s worth it. Make time for your local park. Put it in your diary if you must. When you’re outside in nature, be present: see it, smell it, hear its sounds. Observe trees and plants closely, and notice how they change season to season. Take time to learn about nature. Reading about the environment can help shape our external world views of nature and remind us why it’s important to get out there. Florence William’s The Nature Fix is a case in point. Give your kids a head start on a healthy adult life: get them outside with you. Like what you read? Follow SCMP Lifestyle on Facebook , Twitter and Instagram . You can also sign up for our eNewsletter here .