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Gardening for Health

The Proven Power of Nature continued...

More recently, studies presented at the 1999 Culture, Health, and the Arts World Symposium in England also found beneficial effects of looking at nature. In one study, conducted in Uppsala, Sweden, 160 postoperative heart patients were asked to look at a landscape, an abstract art work, or no picture. Those who looked at the landscape had lower anxiety, required less pain medicine, and spent a day less in the hospital than the control group patients.

The abstract art, however, made patients feel sicker. The health outcomes of those viewing the abstract art was worse than if they saw no art at all. They were more anxious and initially took more pain killers than the control patients.

Yet other studies have found that looking at scenes of nature can produce a decline in systolic blood pressure in five minutes or less, even if the person is only looking at a poster of nature, Ulrich says. Looking at nature, he also has found, can aid recovery from stress as measured by changes in brain electrical activity, muscle tension, respiration, and shifts in emotional states, all of which may be linked to better immune function. That, in turn, can protect people from disease and help them recover if they are sick. According to Ulrich, it is even possible that humans are "hard-wired" through evolution to positively respond to certain environments -- most notably caring human faces, certain views of nature, and music in certain keys.

"It is clear," Ulrich says, "that the mind does matter."

How Nature Works Its Charms

One reason nature may be so successful at reducing stress is that it puts the mind in a state similar to meditation, according to Clare Cooper Marcus, MA, MCP, professor emerita from the University of California at Berkeley, and one of the founders of the field of environmental psychology. "When you are looking intensely at something, or you bend down to smell something, you bypass the [analytical] function of the mind." You naturally stop thinking, obsessing, worrying. Your senses are awakened, which brings you into the present moment, and this has been shown to be very effective at reducing stress, says Marcus, drawing on her own observations.

There are other benefits to being in nature as well, including exercise, exposure to vitamin D from sunshine, and the capacity of light to counter seasonal depression. And for people in restricted environments or with chronic conditions, the payoffs may even be greater, says Richard Zeisel, president of Hearthstone Alzheimer Care in Lexington, Mass., a company that manages living-treatment residences for people with Alzheimer's disease. "You can either upset people and then give them drugs to relax them, or you can not upset them in the first place."

Hearthstone's approach, in which gardens are an integral part of the residences, dramatically decreases anxiety, agitation, aggression, and social withdrawal among patients, and thus the need for antipsychotic drugs. "It's a practical question: would we rather spend money on drugs, or would we rather spend money on flowers?" Zeisel says.

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