By now you won’t be surprised to hear that regular, moderate-intensity exercise may boost mental well-being. Interestingly, being present in outdoor natural environments is recognized to do the same. In fact, even exposure to views of nature can improve mental fatigue and reduce stress! So what do you think might happen if you combine exercise with being in a natural, outdoor environment?
First, let’s go back a little in history: Our genetic heritage was shaped over millennia in a variety of outdoor environments, so it shouldn’t be surprising to learn that living in cities has been associated with increased levels of mental illness, particularly anxiety and depression. As more and more people move to urban areas (predicted to be 70 percent of the population by 2050), our health problems will likely grow in parallel with the shortage of natural environments.
The World Health Organization has identified depression as the leading cause of disability worldwide, and as a major contributor to the global burden of disease. Adding antidepressants to the drinking water is often—jokingly—suggested as an easy, technology-driven solution to this daunting problem. However, as is often the case when it comes to the prevention and treatment of chronic diseases, it is the simple, “old-fashioned” measures that are required.
Research shows that being physically active in natural environments is associated with a greater decrease in depression, anger and tension, and increased energy as compared with exercising indoors. Now the results of a new study demonstrate one possible way that being physically active in nature nurtures our mental well-being. Walking for 90 minutes in a natural environment not only decreased the unhelpful psychological process called rumination (negative self-reflection that is associated with an elevated risk for depression and other mental illnesses), but also reduced neural activity in the part of the brain linked to the risk for mental illness. The results were true only for those in the nature group; there was no similar effect for those who took walks in an urban environment.
These findings suggest a possible mechanism brought on by being in nature that positively impacts the way we feel. If you aren’t able to go for a walk through the lush green spaces in your area, aim for an environment that has some trees and green space and less street noise. Even if you cannot walk, spend some time, whenever possible, sitting outside in nature, or even looking out at natural environments through a window. Studies suggest that observing natural green spaces or nature through a window is associated with superior memory, attention, impulse inhibition and greater feelings of personal well-being.