Back to Nature - Restorative Environments and Intermittent Fasting

IF Insider No. 28

In this issue, we will explore the concept of restorative natural environments and how you can use them to benefit your mental, emotional and physical well-being. This is in keeping with our practice of “stacking” practices on top of intermittent fasting for exponential results.

As always, we are bringing you news on what we’re currently reading or watching. For our premium subscribers, in this issue’s Research Spotlight we are going back to the future, to look at the original “view from a window” study done in 1984 which was instrumental in getting the concept of nature-as-medicine wider acceptance.

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Back to Nature - Restorative Environments and Intermittent Fasting

In our last IF Insider (IF Insider No. 27) we brought you a Superfoods Spotlight, concentrating on mushrooms. In this issue, we continue to talk about “stacking” beneficial practices on top of your IF practice for exponential results, but this time, instead of a superfood, it’s back to nature.

Each month, in our Fast Factor Circle group, Ellen presents a workshop related to the theme we have been discussing for the month. This month, we have had our focus on the natural world and how we can deepen our relationship with it. Ellen introduced the group to the concept of restorative environments, which is a way to think about the natural world that tries to explain why we find some natural environments attractive and soothing, and others not so much.

Much of the thinking about restorative environments comes from the work of the husband and wife psychological team, Rachel Kaplan and her late husband Steven, whose work in the late 1980s involved a theory around directing human attention. 

Their work proposed that when you focus on something that is not inherently interesting in itself, such as adding rows of numbers, or some other task like proofreading a text for errors that requires your unbroken focus and attention, you have to constantly inhibit competing stimuli so that you can keep your focus on what you are doing. 

This focus which the Kaplans refer to as “directed” attention, of course, requires effort, and the more you engage in it, your ability to continue to inhibit the competing stimuli decreases. That’s why the productivity folks urge us to do those kinds of tasks early in our day before our attention gets fatigued. 

The Kaplans suggested that exposure to a natural environment would activate something they called involuntary attention and that this in turn would allow your capacity for directed attention to be restored. But it was really quite a bit later around 2008 or so when this idea, that exposure to natural environments could improve measures of cognitive functioning, was proven in controlled lab settings and it been well established by now that this is the case. 

These places do not have to be extraordinary but can be as simple as having a bit of a garden or even tending a potted plant in your house or apartment to make a real difference in the way you feel.

Terry Hartig, a Swedish professor who has contributed to the restorative environments research, is careful to point out that when we talk about “nature” as restorative, we are not talking about the dangerous and potentially life-threatening parts of the natural environment such as tornadoes in the Southern U.S., or tsunamis in Indonesia or Japan or the earthquakes and wildfires in California or even in the ways nature makes us sick, as in the current Covid-19 pandemic.

Dr. Hartig always points out that he does not equate nature as a whole with the concept of a restorative environment. He says for natural environments that are restorative...

“It's not just a matter of taking away things that are stressful and demanding, it's also a matter of there being something in that environment that keeps people there. They want to go there and when they go there it's not just that they're leaving these things behind but it's easier for them to stop thinking about them... there's something that engages them in that place.”

So what is it about a natural environment that makes it restorative?

According to the Kaplans, there are 4 qualities: being away, fascination, extent, and compatibility. Let’s get a closer look at each of these and the main thought that each of these qualities might inspire (taken from Hartig et al. 1995 Perceived Restorativeness Scale or PRS.)

Being away - You must be able to feel like you have escaped or gotten away, however momentarily, from your attention-depleting environment. Although nearly any environment can provide this, the Kaplans argued in their research that natural environments provide more restorative opportunities than more urban settings. 

Thought: “Spending time here gives me a good break from my day-to-day routine.”

Fascination - This means that it should be interesting. They call this soft fascination as opposed to hard fascination, such as watching the investigation of a crime scene on the tv which might be fascinating but it’s not restorative. Your attention is held by the environment but not drained by it.

Thought: “There is much to discover and explore here.”

Extent - The place must be unlike the environment from which you are escaping and must be explorable without being overwhelming. This place must feel safe but without so many rules and restrictions that you feel stifled. It should also have a certain aura of mystery but not be foreboding or feel unsafe. This feeling of extent may also be almost an entirely internal experience.

Thought: “There is too much going on here.”

Compatibility - The space could meet all the other requirements, including being away from it all, soft fascination as well as safe and comfortable to explore, but if it’s not compatible...let’s say the place was not made for the purpose or for some reason your presence was not accepted, it would not be restorative.

Thought: “I have a sense that I belong here.”

Besides being able to facilitate attention restoration, natural environments have been shown to have robust stress-reducing effects. Again, you do not have to escape to Tahiti to get the benefits of this. A walk in a nearby park, cultivating a container garden on your apartment balcony, even buying yourself a bouquet of fresh flowers to place on your desk can all have restorative effects. Such is the power of nature!

Why It Matters

Now more than ever, with our planet in peril from multiple threats, we need the healing power of nature.

“Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”

~ John Muir (1838 - 1914) - Born in the United Kingdom, John Muir was known as "John of the Mountains" as well as "Father of the National Parks.” He was a Scottish-American naturalist, author, environmental philosopher, botanist, zoologist, glaciologist, and very early advocate for the preservation of wilderness in the U.S.

We would love to know what your favorite restorative environment is…share it with us by posting in the comments!

What We Are Reading 📚

With each issue, we bring you a short blurb on what we are currently reading or watching, including books, articles, podcasts, videos, movies, and research papers of value. 

Denise - One of my favorite writers is Barry Lopez, who writes about nature with elegance, taking you immediately to the source of his focus. I recommend anything by Barry Lopez, and one short book, in particular, River Notes: The Dance of the Herons. “… [the] nature writer evokes and celebrates the forces, settings, rituals, movements, and imperatives of a river, as it calls us back to unity with the natural world.” I really couldn’t say it any better.

Ellen - I was completely intrigued with this book the moment I read the title: Becoming Wild: How Animal Cultures Raise Families, Create Beauty, and Achieve Peace by Carl Safina. Dr. Safina is the author of many books on the inner lives and culture of animals. In Becoming Wild, he charmingly dismantles the belief that only humankind is capable of culture and invites us with luminous prose into the culture, families, and societies of individual animals.

Dr. Safina has been recognized with MacArthur, Pew, and Guggenheim Fellowships and his writing is the recipient of the Orion, Lannan, and National Academies literary awards, among many others. He holds a Ph.D. in ecology from Rutgers University.

Recommended Reading


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