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For as long as there has been civilization, there have been proponents of returning to nature, often in the pursuit of personal or spiritual growth. According to Dr. Jay Maddock, new research shows that nature may heal the body and mind as much as it does the soul. “In recent years, many researchers are independently seeing this deeper connection between health and nature,” he said.

Since 2019, Maddock has directed the Center for Health & Nature, a partnership between Houston Methodist Hospital, Texas A&M University and the conservation nonprofit Texan By Nature established in 2018. With support from the REI Cooperative Action Fund through the Texas A&M Foundation, its fellows are discovering nature’s unexpected medicinal qualities and exploring ways to promote immersion in nature alongside healthy eating and physical activity as a critical component of everyday wellness.

By promoting healing in hospitals.

Dr. Courtney Suess
Assistant Professor
Department of Hospitality, Hotel Management and Tourism


With their blinding white walls, flat overhead lighting and sterile rooms, no one has ever accused modern hospitals of being too cozy. Most people generally accept these discomforting environments, understanding that designs prioritize space and cleanliness over down-home comforts. But, as a hospitality researcher with a background in architecture and interior design for hotels and restaurants, Dr. Courtney Suess sees real benefits in creating more inviting spaces for patients, especially with help from Mother Nature.

In a recent experimental study, Suess and her team used virtual reality goggles to test various hospital environments. While hooked up to biometric sensors, subjects found themselves riding on a roller coaster that suddenly derails—a fantasy scenario that nevertheless caused measurable spikes in stress. The subjects then “woke up” in virtual hospital rooms with varying levels of natural elements in the form of plants, green walls, nature-themed art and even treetops outside.

“Through both biometric and self-reported responses, we observed an overwhelming preference for the greener environments across the board,” Suess said. “From the moment they saw these biophilic spaces, we witnessed stress levels drop.” While she acknowledged that incorporating natural elements into sterile hospital environments could be costly and challenging, Suess sees real value in investigating how the mere sight of nature can calm distressed patients and enable more effective healing.

By building stronger families and communities.

Dr. Debra Kellstedt ’13 ’19
Assistant Professor and Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Specialist


American life is increasingly an indoor activity. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, a 2018 YouGov study found that adults spent 90% of their time inside on average. And according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, children ages 8 to 18 spend an average of 7.5 hours a day absorbing entertainment media through screens.

Dr. Debra Kellstedt ’13 ’19 sees the generational shift when comparing her upbringing to her children’s. “I was what you’d call a ‘free range child,’” she said, recalling long days spent roaming around her neighborhood. “My children are in their 20s, and they didn’t experience that at all. Their lives have been very structured with scheduled activities, and I’m afraid they lost that connection to nature.” Through her work with the center and Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service’s Family and Community Health Unit, Kellstedt strives to get Texans out of the house.

“Being outside doesn’t just promote physical activity,” she explained. “It also improves emotional and mental health as well as your social connectedness. Often, you’re connecting not just with nature but also with other people, whether they be loved ones or community members.”

To facilitate that connection, Kellstedt and a team of county extension agents are piloting localized programs throughout the state that invite families to engage in outdoor activities and consider how they can incorporate nature experiences into their routines. “Walking on the sidewalk may not impact you the same as hiking all day in the mountains,” she said, “but making time to immerse yourself and your kids in nature can make a real difference.”

By keeping things cool in urban environments.

Dr. Dongying Li
Assistant Professor
Department of Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning


The sky is blue, water is wet and Texas is hot—hotter than usual. With an average temperature of 85.3 degrees, summer 2023 was the state’s second hottest on record. Major cities experienced up to 45 consecutive days of 100-plus-degree weather, and data shows they can expect more scorchers to come due to climate change.

While traditional methods of cooling down cities have focused on reducing air temperature, Dr. Dongying Li is finding that nature-based urban solutions could make the state’s sweltering metropolitan areas more habitable by prioritizing shade, decreasing the oppressive heat’s adverse psychological impacts and lowering terrestrial radiation, or heat radiating from the earth. “Seeing and interacting with nature can help people improve their mood and executive function—two areas negatively impacted by heat stress,” Li said.

Li and her colleagues regularly disseminate their findings to practitioners, such as advising municipalities to consider how incorporating greenery into their urban environments can have tangible impacts on tenants’ physical and mental well-being. “Something that’s surprised me is how exposure to green space impacts all populations,” Li mentioned. “For a few projects, we hypothesized that people’s distinct demographics, socioeconomic conditions or cultural backgrounds would have specific impacts, but there were less differences than commonalities. It seems that, as human beings, we all benefit from being exposed to nature.”

Walk on the Wild Side: Tips to Embrace the Great Outdoors

Research within and outside the Center for Health & Nature shows that incorporating nature into your everyday life can have surprisingly powerful therapeutic benefits. “Nature is a continuum,” said Maddock. “And the bigger the dose of nature, the more positive effect it has.” He and his fellow researchers at the center shared some simple tips for embracing the great outdoors.

Get a plant. Studies suggest that keeping even one small plant within sight at your desk can brighten your mood, calm your nerves and promote greater focus. Plus, a beautiful potted plant offers a timeless piece of décor for your home or office. Popular, low-maintenance options include spider plants, peace lilies, ZZ plants, monsteras, pothos plants and the ever-resilient cacti.

Think green. Find some ways to incorporate trees, nature scenes and the color green into your surroundings. Consider moving your desk closer to a window or even just changing your desktop wallpaper to a striking image of a national park. It may seem small, but your brain will thank you for keeping it in touch with the natural world.

Take a hike. A quick stroll around the neighborhood can do you some good, but look for nearby parks and trails where you can let your mind wander without traffic and other modern distractions. Embrace what the Japanese call “forest bathing,” and spend an hour or two simply taking in the sights, sounds and smells of the wild.

To learn how you can support these researchers and their colleagues at the Center for Health & Nature as they study incorporating nature into everyday wellness, contact Karen Slater ’88, assistant vice president of development, at the bottom of this page.

  • Karen Slater '88

  • Assistant Vice President of Development
  • Texas A&M Health
  • Call: 979.436.9108

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