December 5, 2023

The desire to be outdoors increased during the COVID-19 pandemic as people who wanted to leave their homes looked for a space to practice safe social distancing. Yet as the pandemic has waned, researchers increasingly are finding that there are real and long-term health benefits from regularly being outdoors.

These health benefits include improved immune function and mood, as well as lowered cortisol levels and blood pressure levels, according to Regents Professor Jay Maddock from the Texas A&M University School of Public Health.

“Our goal is to have people recognize the benefits of nature. When people think of living a healthy life, we want them to think of that connection to nature.”
- Dr. Jay Maddock

“We’re able to look at patient care and how we improve nature access in patient care,” Maddock said. “We’re also able to look through the conservation lens and through a unique Texas lens because of Texan by Nature, which was founded by First Lady Laura Bush. Texan by Nature has a very different angle than you see in most nature centers; it really is one that fits Texas and is appropriate for our state and all residents of the state.”

More than 30 faculty fellows from across the nation are involved in the center’s work. Approximately 20 of the fellows are from Texas, with most representing Houston Methodist or Texas A&M’s School of Public Health, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and School of Architecture. Maddock hopes the REI funds will entice faculty from other Texas colleges and universities to participate in the center’s work.

Texas A&M also is one of the founding partners of the National Nature and Health Alliance, which started in December 2022. The other founding partners of the alliance, which is also funded by the REI Cooperative Action Fund, include the University of Washington, the University of Maryland and the University of Utah.

Connecting Texans and Nature

In addition to its research component, the Center for Health and Nature is developing innovative efforts to encourage Texans across the state to get outdoors. For example, a faculty fellow is developing an extension-based program in partnership with Texas A&M AgriLife Extension that encourages families in both rural and urban areas to explore nature. When completed, this program will be delivered through AgriLife Extension agents in all of Texas’ 254 counties.

These types of programs could have significant health benefits for all Texans. For example, researchers have found that being outdoors offers a number of benefits for children, including reduced ADHD symptoms, enhanced attention span and increased motor skills.

And the benefits add up the longer people remain in nature. “There’s this long-term effect of being in nature,” Maddock said. “If people spend a long weekend fully immersed in nature, then we see changes in immune function—and the improved immune function can actually fight off cancer, which is amazing. Your natural killer cells increase a month later from spending a weekend in nature.”

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