These days, we spend the majority of our waking hours sitting on our backsides, staring at screens. (Upwards of 11 hours per day, apparently.) But as it turns out, your Grandma was onto something with all those "fresh air will do you good" lectures. Research suggests that it's important to spend time in nature, and doing so is beneficial — perhaps even essential — for our mental and physical health.
As summer marches on in the Pacific Northwest, we're examining the evidence that nature makes us healthier, happier people. Below, three science-backed reasons to get off your butt and go enjoy Mother Nature:
Immersing yourself in nature for two hours every week has significant health benefits, according to a study published in the Journal Scientific Reports.
People who spent 120 minutes a week in "green spaces" reported a significant increase in both their mental and physical well-being, compared to those who didn't go outdoors. (No need to head for the mountains, btw. An urban park counts as a green space.) The participants didn't need to spend that time exercising, either—as long as they were outdoors, immersed in natured, they experienced a boost in their overall well-being.
Even better, the two hours could be spread out throughout the week. Bottom line: As little as 20 minutes outdoors per day is all it takes to see health benefits.
Other studies show that immersing yourself in natural surroundings can decrease cortisol levels—AKA the stress hormone—and lower systolic blood pressure and heart rate.
According to recent research, exposure to green spaces can help ease anxiety, depression, and other mental health concerns.
One study showed that strolls through the forest increased self-esteem while decreasing anxiety and negative emotions. In another, nature walks reduced activity in the prefrontal cortex—an area of the brain that's active during rumination. (Rumination is what happens when you get down or anxious. It's the process of continuously thinking the same thoughts, which tend to be sad and dark.) When people feel stressed or depressed, the prefrontal cortex malfunctions, and they may experience a continuous loop of negative thoughts.
In the study, researchers compared the brain activity of healthy people who walked for 90 minutes. Half the participants strolled through a natural setting with trees and shrubs, while the other half took a jaunt through an urban environment. The nature walkers showed decreases in cycling thoughts and activity in their prefrontal cortices, while the urban walkers did not.
Nature is the most abundant source of beauty and inspiration available to us. Is it any surprise that it enhances our creativity? One study found that people who immersed themselves in nature for four days were able to boost their performance on a creative problem-solving test by a whopping 50%.
Similarly, nature might have a "restorative" effect on our attention spans and mental energy. In another, researchers examined participants' ability to focus. They sent some people on a hike through nature, others on an urban stroll, and instructed the rest to relax. When everyone returned, the nature group outperformed the others on a proofreading task.
Nature's attention-restoring effect might even extend to kids with ADHD: children's symptoms have been found to improve after a 20 walk through the park.
While the research is compelling, we hope these insights encourage you to go outside and experience the benefits of nature firsthand. Summer is waiting!