#1 Victorian uni for graduate employment1

#1 in the world for sport science2

#1 Victorian uni for course satisfaction3

NEXT UP ON this.

Need a nature fix? Here are some tips on how to get your fix

When was the last time you got away from your desk and connected with nature? With our population increasingly urbanised and plugged into technology, it’s becoming harder to connect with the natural world than it was in the past.

Nature-deficit disorder, a term popularised by American author Richard Louv in his 2005 book, ‘Last Child in the Woods’, is an issue that is affecting children and young people in a plethora of ways.

This concerns Justin Lawson, a lecturer in Deakin’s School of Health and Social Development and member of Health, Nature and Sustainability Research Group.

‘With a lot of the technology that’s been developed, kids just aren’t really engaging as much with those natural settings as people of older generations did,’ Dr Lawson says.

‘We haven’t really quite got the awe of nature. If you’re just going to stay inside and Netflix or Minecraft your life away, you’re removing yourself from something that could be truly awesome.’

Know the benefits of connecting with nature

Dr Lawson explains that connecting with the natural world can provide benefits including:

  • Physiological health benefits: ‘being out in the natural environment you’re breathing fresh air, improving your respiratory system by encouraging deeper breathing, you’re improving your circulation and thus reducing risk of cardiovascular disease, as well as improving your immunity system that fights cancer.’
  • Physical health benefits: ‘Depending on your abilities, fine and gross motor skills can be developed or enhanced with navigating through a natural setting that is not uniform such as a built environment.’
  • Mental health benefits: ‘there’s research about how experiencing natural environments can make you more alert, yet also calm. There are lots of different tools out there to de-stress, but the one that’s hidden in plain sight is the local park and it costs you nothing.’
  • Spiritual benefits: ‘there’s a sense of awe and wonderment to being in nature. Whether that’s a spiritual or religious experience is up to the individual, but you can have some very profound moments – seeing the sunrise, the light shining through the trees, also known as komorebi – can bring you back to being quite centred.’

You don’t necessarily have to take a hardcore camping trip into a national park to reap these rewards, Dr Lawson adds.

‘A fish tank and a couple of indoor plants are better than nothing.’

Grow yourself some vegetables

Dr Lawson notes the satisfaction that comes from ‘growing something from start to finish’. If you don’t have space for a garden, a few pot-plants will do.

And a tight budget is no excuse, because there are plenty of ways you can propagate vegetables from kitchen scraps, as members of Deakin’s community garden have been exploring recently.

‘Seed saving is a bit of a lost art these days,’ Dr Lawson says. ‘But think about all the stuff you buy in the supermarket. Pumpkin seeds you throw away, but you can grow pumpkins with them. We saved part of a celery – ate most of it, then replanted the base and grew another celery from it.’

Join a community garden

If you’re looking for an opportunity to learn more about gardening and contribute to something bigger, joining a community garden like Deakin’s is a great option – especially ‘if you don’t have a balcony or backyard’, Dr Lawson suggests.

There are plenty of options around Melbourne, both communal and plot-based (where each member has their own dedicated section). The level of commitment required from members varies between community gardens, too.

‘Some of them are really quite impressive,’ Dr Lawson says.

Join a ‘friends of’ group

If you believe in keeping your local public open spaces beautiful, Dr Lawson urges you to consider joining a ‘friends of’ group like the Friends of Gardiners Creek Valley, which covers the reserve behind Deakin’s Burwood campus, or the Friends of Damper Creek Reserve less than 10 minutes away and where his Honours student Aiden Henderson is currently undertaking research.

‘There is a widening gap because most of these “friends of” groups have been started by people my age and older, and if they don’t get the next wave of members they’re going to die out,’ Dr Lawson laments.

‘It’s usually something like a once a fortnight commitment on a Sunday or sometimes during the week, and you’re out there doing a bit of physical activity – weeding or planting. There’s a lot more than just getting in contact with nature; there’s socialising, getting to know your area a bit better, and getting a real sense of attachment and identity with the place.’

Dr Lawson adds: ‘Once you realise how beneficial it is for you to be in these natural settings you want to look after it and make sure it’s there for everyone to enjoy.’

Care for some indoor plants

Keeping it simple, why not bring the great outdoors into your home or workspace? Indoor plants are extremely popular right now, and for good reason.

‘Just being exposed to the biota, bacteria and soils, can actually have positive impacts on your immune system,’ Dr Lawson explains.

A recent PhD graduate found people living in high-rise apartments are being less exposed to microbiota, which is the community of bacteria, fungi and viruses that live in our gut and on our skin. Exposures to these are vital for a healthy immune system.

‘Living several floors up may reward you with a grand view but it shouldn’t cost your health,’ Dr Lawson says.

If this sounds like you, a quick fix is to invite a few leafy greens into your home.

‘At least one plant is better than no plant,’ Dr Lawson suggests.

Play with a pet

Speaking of inviting nature into your home, ‘there’s been a lot of research done into the benefits of having a dog or a cat’, Dr Lawson says.

‘Especially having a dog because you’ve got to walk the dog every day.’

Aside from those obvious physical benefits, pets are great for your mental health, and some research even suggests they can boost your physiological health and prevent allergies.

If it’s not the right time in your life to commit to getting a pet, there are other options. You could volunteer to pet-sit when friends go away, volunteer at a local animal shelter or animal sanctuary, start your own pet-walking business for those who are time poor or can’t walk their pets, or head down to the local dog park to make some furry friends.

If you’re really adventurous and want to experience a wilder form of experiencing animals in their habitat, go on a safari, or better yet, volunteer with an environmental organisation conducting research on habitat conservation. Dr Lawson volunteered with Earthwatch Institute to assist with another PhD student investigating hummingbirds in the Peruvian Amazon, which was a life-transforming experience.

Take a walk in one of Melbourne’s many open spaces  

Finally, and perhaps the simplest way to get your nature fix, is to hunt around your area for a great local park or beach to take a walk.

While some research (namely by Baumann et al 1999 and Edwards et al 2014) suggests living closer to the beach can improve your health outcomes, walking through your local park or along one of Melbourne’s hundreds of creeks can also give you a boost.

There’s been research about the quality of a park and what constitutes beneficial contact with nature,’ Dr Lawson explains.

‘Sporting and recreation ovals generally don’t quite do it. You need a meandering path with a mix of vegetation for some visual richness.’

It’s important for a great walking space to strike the balance between giving you ‘a sense of curiosity, fascination, or mystery about a place’, while still having enough visibility around to feel safe, Dr Lawson adds.

this. featured experts
Dr Justin Lawson
Dr Justin Lawson


Faculty of Health,

Deakin University

Read profile

explore more