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Time for a nature break

If you're like most Americans, you probably spend the vast majority of your time indoors, whether you're working, sleeping or watching television. Data published by the Environmental Protection Agency suggest that adults in the United States typically spend about 90 percent of their lives in some type of building.

All this time spent cooped up inside could be causing us to miss out on some important benefits linked to communing with nature. Being outside in natural settings makes people feel more alive, according to research published in the latest issue of the Journal of Environmental Psychology.

In a study of more than 500 college students, scientists at the University of Rochester in New York found that subjects consistently reported feeling more energetic when they spent time outdoors in natural surroundings, as opposed to remaining indoors. Being outside in nature for just 20 minutes a day was enough to significantly boost energy levels and produce a greater sense of well-being.

Sitting quietly in nature is good for you, but engaging in virtually any type of physical activity in the great outdoors appears to be even better. The results of a new study published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology reveal that when subjects engaged in just five minutes of activity in a natural setting, they enjoyed dramatic boosts in mood and self-esteem.

You don't have to travel to a remote destination to tap into the powerful benefits of nature. Research suggests that spending time in a backyard garden, on a golf course or at a city park can be as emotionally restorative as hiking or camping in the wilderness.

Even if your circumstances keep you trapped indoors most of the time, it's still possible to enjoy the health-promoting effects of nature. Simply observing natural flora and fauna through a window has been shown to reduce anxiety and anger while enhancing feelings of pleasure.

Research suggests that taking a moment to appreciate the beauty of a blue sky or a green area while driving can lower blood pressure and heart rate significantly, reflecting a greater sense of calm and an overall reduction in the body's response to stress.

For folks suffering from illness or injury, viewing nature appears to help diminish pain and hasten healing. In a landmark study published in the journal Science, researchers compared the effects of natural scenery and man-made structures on patients recovering from gallbladder surgery.

The scientists found that surgical patients who stayed in hospital rooms with windows overlooking natural settings fared far better than those confined to rooms with windows facing brick walls. The patients whose hospital rooms afforded views of nature experienced fewer surgical complications and had faster recovery times.

The nature-viewing patients also reported less post-operative discomfort and required fewer prescription painkillers than their counterparts who viewed manmade structures.

While it's easy to think that toiling at a windowless workstation might deter daydreaming and increase an employee's productivity, the opposite is true. When office workers are able to enjoy a glimpse of nature from their desks, they report experiencing improved concentration and greater attention to detail.

Exposure to nature is associated with better problem-solving abilities and reductions in mental fatigue, irritability, illness and on-the-job accidents. The results of several studies demonstrate that employees who are able to glance outside while working tend to experience less job-related stress while enjoying greater job satisfaction.

If you don't have access to a breathtaking view of nature at work, you can always improvise with photographs or paintings. Scientists at the University of Rochester found that subjects who simply imagined themselves in natural settings felt significantly energized afterward.

If you're not able to traipse around outdoors or gaze out of windows while you're on the job, you might be able to bring a bit of nature's beauty indoors. Studies conducted by Norwegian researchers demonstrated that sprucing up the workplace with living plants resulted in less fatigue and fewer headaches among employees.

The next time you find yourself feeling overwhelmed or under pressure, consider taking a moment to commune with nature. It's one of the quickest and easiest steps you can take to calm your mind, relax your body and lift your spirits.

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