Quirks & Quarks·Analysis

As entertainment shuts down, take in the spectacle nature has to offer

Bob McDonald's science blog: Immersing yourself in nature can have positive effects on your physical and mental health.

Bob McDonald's science blog

Bob McDonald enjoying the great outdoors by the seaside. (Jennifer Hartley)

While theatres, restaurants, sporting events, concerts and public gatherings are closed or cancelled to prevent the spread of COVID-19, there is still a wonderful source of rich entertainment available: a walk in the park or forest.

The current situation with the spread of the virus is forcing people to spend more time at home, both for work, and with schools closed, family. The closed environment of the home can quickly become limited for sources of entertainment, especially for active young minds.

So rather than become immersed in virtual-reality worlds, try taking off the goggles and stepping out for a dose of reality. It's easy to keep a social distance outdoors, it's good for the body and mind, and endlessly entertaining if you look closely. 

Nature is a three-dimensional, multi-sensory, fully immersive experience. And it's free! 

Getting outside for a walk in nature is good for your physical and mental health. (Martin Bernetti / AFP via Getty Images)

Much to see and do out while immersed in nature

Now that spring has officially arrived, the longer days offer more opportunity to experience the beauty of nature free from fear of contamination from doorknobs, handrails and elevator buttons.

Any park —large or small — offers the chance to soak in some vitamin D from the sun, fill the lungs with fresh air, listen to the sounds of waves lapping a shore or a babbling brook, or the arrival of the first birds back from migration. Take in the wonder of life rejuvenating itself from winter's grip. 

A woman is reflected in a puddle as she walks past a pond during rainy weather in a forest. (Yuri Kadobnov / AFP via Getty Images)

Contact with nature, even if we have to keep our distance from others we may encounter outdoors, can be good for our health by breathing in fresh air, getting physical exercise and by lowering stress.

There is so much to see in every direction if you stop and look closely. Down at ground level, new shoots are pushing up through the soil. Turn over a rock and see what creatures are hiding underneath. (Be sure to put the rock back in its original position). Try to find new buds emerging from branches. Perhaps a squirrel will scamper by.

Just being in the presence of plants and trees, especially in forest settings with good air quality, can help reduce blood pressure and boost our immune functioning, thanks to volatile organic chemicals released from many plants and trees called phytoncides

This figure summarizes the state of the scientific literature on nature and health, listing the “active ingredients” in nature identified as having positive health impacts; physiological/psychological states, behaviours, and conditions tied to both nature and health; and specific health outcomes tied to nature. (Ming Kuo / Frontiers in Psychology Cognitive Science)

Awe-inspiration for your health

If you are out just after sunset, Venus shines like a brilliant diamond in the western sky. Then, later in the evening, the constellation Orion "The Hunter" appears in the south, with the red giant star Betelgeuse on his right shoulder. The Orion Nebula hangs on his sword, while brilliant Sirius — known as the "Dog Star" — and the brightest star in the skies, follows the hunter across the heavens.

And if you are an early morning person, the sky spectacle continues with Jupiter, Mars and Saturn clustered together in the pre-dawn light, and you may be fortunate to spot elusive Mercury hugging the eastern horizon.

Tourists in masks walk past the awe-inspiring Horseshoe Falls in Niagara Falls, Ontario, on March 18, 2020. (Geoff Robins / AFP via Getty Images)

Nature offers many sources of awe-inspiring spectacles to see and experience, and those positive feelings of awe may also give our immune system a much-needed boost by lowering a proinflammatory cytokine, IL-6, associated with poorer outcomes with COVID-19.

Fear of contamination from this new coronavirus is running high, and for good reason. It is spreading fast around the globe. But it is still possible, if you are not in isolation, to step away from humanity and get a little peace of mind by embracing the natural world. 

And it's good for both your physical and mental health.

About the Author

Bob McDonald is the host of CBC Radio's award-winning weekly science program, Quirks & Quarks. He is also a science commentator for CBC News Network and CBC-TV's The National. He has received 12 honorary degrees and is an Officer of the Order of Canada.

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