Remember the feeling of calmness and peace that comes from being out in nature, surrounded by a meadow, stream or lake, a forest or a beach? Did you know that being outdoors not only brings you joy — it can also improve your health in many ways?
Studies have shown being outdoors can lessen blood pressure, sharpen your focus, improve your mood and, when combined with physical activities such as walking, hiking or swimming, lessen depression and boost your immune system.
The Japanese have a word for this ecotherapy: shinrin-yoku, which means “forest bathing.” The concept is not new; many cultures recognize the importance of the natural world to human health.
But what you may not know is that you don’t have to get very far away to immerse yourself in nature and enjoy the health benefits. Even five to 10 minutes spent listening to birdsong in your local park can lower your stress levels.
You can take the opportunity to practice mindfulness meditation, connecting to your breath, listening to the sounds, smelling the scents and simply being present in the moment.
And, as the poet Frank O’Hara famously said about the city: “One need never leave the confines of New York to get all the greenery one wishes….”
Every borough has its large and small parks, its better and lesser-known green oases. You may find yourself spotting birds you’ve never seen before, especially during their spring and fall fly-through migrations. Also hiding in the city are raccoons, possums, deer and foxes (in some boroughs), turtles and more.
You may find your world expanding as you discover new varieties of flowers and trees. But even without an interest in flora and fauna, you will benefit from the green space and time to slow down, clear your head and take in the beauty of the natural world.
In doses large and small, nature is healing. What are you waiting for? Make it part of your daily routine whenever you can.
NYC parks to explore
Central Park, the 843-acre park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux opened in 1876. While it is the most visited urban park in the country, you can find pockets of solitude throughout, including in the Ramble, a birder’s paradise, or the Hallet Nature Sanctuary, opened to the public in 2016. Central Park is a good place to learn about geology, with glacial erratics and striations that the park was built around.
Fort Tryon Park, located in Washington Heights, in upper Manhattan, provides a sweeping view of the Hudson river and an extensive wild forest along with cultivated plantings. The Cloisters, a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, (which is pay-what-you-wish for New York state residents) constructed of sections of French medieval monasteries, is perched at its peak.
Prospect Park was, like Central Park, designed by Olmstead and Vaux and opened in 1867. Known for the great variety of birds that live or migrate through, you can spot egrets, herons, geese, ducks and swans at the only lake in Brooklyn. It has paths winding through it and an old-growth forest. Just outside the park sits the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, beautiful in any season; nearby is the Brooklyn Museum, with art from cultures around the world.
Marine Park Salt Marsh Nature Trail is a unique ecosystem, a tidal salt marsh that mixes freshwater from Gerritsen Creek with salt water from Jamaica Bay. It has plants and animals not found in most other parks in the city, including diamondback terrapin turtles, osprey, mussels, clams and oysters, and native grasses, tall phragmites and cattails that make you feel very far from the city.
Flushing Meadows Corona Park, with its towering Unisphere from the 1964 World’s Fair, is a huge green space, known for its beautiful cherry blossoms in the spring. There are bike paths, a zoo, the Queens Wildlife Conservation Center, the Queens Museum, New York Hall of Science, two nearby lakes and more.
Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge is an important part of the Gateway National Recreation Area. Located between mainland Queens and the Rockaway peninsula, the refuge has freshwater ponds and hiking trails. It is home to many protected species of flora and fauna, especially migratory birds. With its views of the city skyline in the distance, it offers a unique perspective on the coexistence of the natural and urban worlds
Pelham Bay Park is the city's largest, covering 2,772 acres. It has miles of hiking and biking trails and bridle paths for horseback riding. A highlight is the 13-mile long shoreline, which includes Orchard Beach, the only public beach in the Bronx. The Bartow-Pell Mansion dates back to 1842 and is on land purchased from Siwanoy Native Americans; today it is a museum.
Wave Hill, a 26-acre botanic garden and nonprofit cultural institution, is located on an overlook in the northwest corner of the Bronx, with stunning views of the Hudson River and Palisades. Filled with native plants, flowers and trees, it’s a great getaway from the bustle of the city.
Great Kills Park, on the island’s south shore has four beaches and is a vital part of the Gateway National Recreation Area of New York and New Jersey. The park offers views of Brooklyn and the Verrazano Bridge and a multi-trail hiking area at Crooke’s Point that highlights the wooded and salt marsh areas of the park.
The Snug Harbor Cultural Center and Botanical Garden has lots of green space amid 28 historic structures. It includes a Healing Garden, and the New York Chinese Scholar’s Garden, a meditative space that is one of only two authentic, outdoor Chinese gardens in the U.S. It features a bamboo-forest path, waterfalls and a koi-filled pond.
New York City has more than its share of beautiful beaches. From the more urban Coney Island, Brighton or Manhattan Beach (all in Brooklyn), to the wilder waves of the Rockaways and Jacob Riis Park in Queens, you can get there by subway, bus or car.
Explore Long Island
Long Island is a perfect place for a quick getaway, whether for a day or a weekend. There are beautiful waterfront towns, beaches, lighthouses, parks, vineyards and more.
Fire Island: Take the train to the ferry and immerse yourself in coastal life and history. Fire Island is a special place for diverse plants, animals and people and has been for centuries. Far from the pressure of big-city life, dynamic barrier island beaches offer solitude, camaraderie and spiritual renewal.
Whale watching: Long Island is one of the top East Coast whale watching destinations. Get close to groups of large baleen and toothed whales, spot seals and dolphins at play or watch seabirds, sea turtles and other marine life by taking a local cruise.
Sands Point Preserve Conservancy, home of the Guggenheim Estate on the north shore, offers 216 acres that are a mix of natural and landscaped areas. Stroll, hike, jog or run on six marked trails through diverse habitats of woods, open fields and pond.
Old Westbury Gardens is a National Historic Site known for its family-friendly outdoor activities and gorgeous gardens and grounds. The estate spans 200 acres and contains formal gardens, landscaped grounds, woodlands, ponds and lakes.