There are many benefits to spending more time outside, like soaking up vitamin D and engaging in physical activities such as hiking, swimming, biking, and running. In addition to the physical benefits of spending time in nature, going outside can go a long way in helping you feel mentally, physically, and emotionally better.
Have you ever found yourself feeling super stressed and thought, “I just need to go outside for some fresh air!” Maybe a friend has suggested that you go take a walk because “it will help you relax” when life is feeling particularly tough.
It’s not a coincidence that more often than not you just feel better after a quick nature break.
Whether it’s the fresh air, the sounds, the colors, the physical activity, or simply time spent away from screens and technology, nature has a way of healing, supporting, and nurturing.
1. Nature reduces stress and relaxes the brain.
Spending more time in nature can be beneficial not only for immune function and combatting inflammation but for several of the greatest public health issues in our modern life as well, like obesity, depression, and eyesight. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
Researchers from the University of Glasgow found evidence to suggest that physical activity in natural environments can improve mental health and reduce stress, and a 2015 study out of Stanford University found a significant difference in the positive effects that taking a walk in nature can have on mental well-being compared to going for a walk in an urban setting.6, 7
While I encourage you to go outside and engage physically with nature, even looking out at a view of nature through a window when you’re feeling stressed out can provide some relief.8
2. Nature improves cognitive function and mental performance.
If you’re experiencing mental fatigue and can’t seem to concentrate or make decisions, go outside! Spending time in nature has been shown to have positive effects on brain function for adults as well as kids.9, 10
Not only can natural environments improve your attention and ability to focus, according to a study led by psychologists at the University of North Florida, when you engage in dynamic physical activities outdoors like climbing a tree, balancing on a beam, or even walking barefoot, you can increase your working memory by 50 percent.11, 12
Moving in a new or unfamiliar environment or terrain not only challenges your fitness and physicality, but also engages your cognitive function in ways you don’t get to when you only move in the same terrain or environment like a traditional gym.
When you are balancing or climbing a tree, for example, you are moving in an unfamiliar and unpredictable environment which challenges your proprioception (that is, your awareness and ability to sense the position and movement of your body parts in your surrounding space without visual assistance). This engages the “problem-solving” part of the brain (your working memory) to process the incoming information and helps you adapt to the environment, which results to improved working memory performance in general.
Spend some time moving outside, and you may notice that you can focus more own your studies or your work performance.
I’ve noticed this myself, when hiking on a trail I’ve have never been on. I am much more aware of my surroundings and how my body is moving in that space. It’s new information for my senses, my body, and my brain that requires me to be fully present to navigate this new terrain and avoid injury. It can feel like you’re working out a real-world puzzle for the body and mind.
3. Nature can protect eyesight.
We spend most of our days indoors, looking at screens and very rarely needing to look beyond a few feet. It is no wonder why myopia (nearsightedness) is increasingly prevalent.13 Just like the body requires natural movement to function optimally, so do our eyes.
Numerous studies have found that children who spend more time playing or participating in sports outdoors have a lower prevalence of myopia.13, 14, Researchers in China found, over a three-year period, that children who spent as little as 40 extra minutes outside during the school day were less likely to develop myopia. 15, 16
At the very least, it is beneficial to take a break from the computer every 20 minutes to look out the window at the farthest point for a few minutes, and even better to step outside regularly and scan the environment and give our eyes a break if we spend most of our time indoors, under artificial light, or in front of a screen.
4. Nature improves mood and can help manage depression.
Studies suggest that spending time in nature reduces our cortisol levels and heightens our sense of well-being.6 Simply going for a walk has been shown to reduce anxiety and help with depression.7
Going outside and sitting by a lake or stream and allowing myself to melt into a state of relaxation has helped me to cope with depression and anxiety. There is research linking both, movement and nature to improved mood, though it’s hard to say what exactly is responsible for that result. Is it simply being outdoors? Is it the physical activity? Is it a combination of both? 17, 18 Does figuring that out even matter?
I think Dr. David Strayer, a cognitive psychologist from the University of Utah sums up the body-nature relationship beautifully in an interview with National Geographic Magazine on this topic: “At the end of the day, we come out in nature not because the science says it does something to us, but because of how it makes us feel.”19
We have a pervasive disconnect from nature and the more we can re-immerse ourselves in natural settings, the more it can help us feel more alive, vibrant, and strong, benefiting in ways physical, mental, and spiritual in the process.
Ready to connect with nature?
If you’re ready to start reaping the benefits of spending time outdoors, here are a few things you can do:
- Go outside, lay on the ground, and look up at the sky. Feel all your senses come to life as you breathe peacefully and take it all in.
- If there is an area in which you feel safe, take a walk. If you’re in the habit of walking the same route, switch it up if you have options.
- Climb or hang on a tree.
- Go hiking and explore a new environment and terrain through some dynamic movement like stepping over and under, crawling, balancing, or climbing.
- Walk barefoot. If this is new for you start on a gentle surface like sand or grass. Feel the ground beneath your feet and notice how you have to pay attention to the surface to avoid stepping on something sharp or hot. Each step you take barefoot you are using your working memory to help problem solve. It’s a win-win for your brain and foot-health. As your feet grow accustomed to different textures and surfaces over time, you can explore on more challenging surfaces like stones and rocks.
- If you have kids, take them to the park. Move and engage in the environment by climbing and hanging on the monkey bars, chasing your kids under, over, and through various obstacles, balancing on a beam. Everyone benefits!
These are just a few ideas. However you choose to do it, get outside today and fuel your body, mind and spirit with some vitamin N!
- Li Q. Effect of forest bathing trips on human immune function. Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine. 2010;15(1):9-17.
- Mao GX, Lan XG, Cao YB, et al. Effects of short-term forest bathing on human health in a broad-leaved evergreen forest in Zhejiang Province, China. Biomed Environ Sci. 2012 Jun;25(3):317-24.
- Mao GX, Cao YB, Lan XG, et al. Therapeutic effect of forest bathing on human hypertension in the elderly. J Cardiol. 2012 Dec;60(6):495-502.
- Miyazaki Y, Lee J, Park BJ, Tsunetsugu Y, Matsunaga K. Preventive medical effects of nature therapy. Nihon Eiseigaku Zasshi. 2011 Sep;66(4):651-6.
- Rose KA, Morgan IG, Smith W, et al. Myopia, Lifestyle, and Schooling in Students of Chinese Ethnicity in Singapore and Sydney. Arch Ophthalmol. 2008;126(4):527-530.
- Mitchel R. Is physical activity in natural environments better for mental health than physical activity in other environments? Social Science & Medicine. 2013 Aug; Vol 91:130-134
- Bratmana GN, Hamilton P, Hahn KS, Dailyd GC, Gross JJ. Nature experience reduces rumination and subgenual prefrontal cortex activation. Proc Natl Acad Sci. 2015 Jul 14;112(28):8567-72
- Shin WS. The influence of forest view through a window on job satisfaction and job stress. Scandinavian Journal of Forest Research. 2007;22(3):248-253
- Atchley RA, Strayer DL, Atchley P (2012) Creativity in the Wild: Improving Creative Reasoning through Immersion in Natural Settings. PLoS ONE 7(12): e51474.
- Faber Taylor A, Kuo FE. Children With Attention Deficits Concentrate Better After Walk in the Park. Journal of Attention Disorders. 2009 Mar;12(5):402-409.
- Berman MG, Jonides J, Kaplan S. The Cognitive Benefits of Interacting With Nature. Psychological Science. 2008 Dec;19(12):1207-1212.
- Alloway RG, Packiam Alloway T. The Working Memory Benefits of Proprioceptively Demanding Training: A Pilot Study. Perceptual and Motor Skills. 2015 June;120(3):766-775.
- Sherwin JC, Reacher MH, Keogh RH, et al. The association between time spent outdoors and myopia in children and adolescents: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Ophthalmology. 2012 Oct;119(10):2141-51.
- Rose KA, Morgan IG, Ip J, et al. Outdoor activity reduces the prevalence of myopia in children. Ophthalmology. 2008 Aug;115(8):1279-85.
- Jones LA, Sinnott LT, Mutti DO, et al. Parental History of Myopia, Sports and Outdoor Activities, and Future Myopia. Invest. Vis. Sci. 2007;48(8):3524-3532.
- He M, Xiang F, Zeng Y, et al. Effect of Time Spent Outdoors at School on the Development of Myopia Among Children in China: A Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA. 2015;314(11):1142-1148.
- Heesch KC, van Gellecum YR, Burton NW, van Uffelen JGZ, Brown WJ. Physical Activity, Walking, and Quality of Life in Women with Depressive Symptoms. American Journal of Preventive Medicine. 2015 Mar;48(3):281-291
- Craft LL, Perna FM. The Benefits of Exercise for the Clinically Depressed. Primary Care Companion to The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry. 2004;6(3):104-111.
- Williams F. “This Is Your Brain on Nature” National Geographic Magazine. January 2016.
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