Getting outside this time of year is a no-brainer. There’s something about the warmth of sun on your skin and the cooling of wind in your hair that instantly makes you feel better. Food cooked or eaten outside feels nostalgic and, in some circumstances, even seems to taste better. Plus, trading stale air-conditioned air for fresh air is, well, refreshing.
All of these mental benefits aren’t only in your head. A growing field of research shows spending time alfresco is good for our mood, memory and more. The key is to indulge in the moment.
“Being in nature is the idea of being away. The more immersed you are, the better,” says David Strayer, PhD, professor of Cognition and Neural Science at the University of Utah. “Put your phone away, walk out to a grassy area and watch the birds, clouds, all those things.”
So concentrate on your surroundings next time you have a picnic or go for a walk around the neighborhood, and you may benefit from these positive effects of being in the great outdoors.
1. LESS STRESS
If you find yourself feeling less tense when you hit the park, you’re not imagining things. In a Japanese study, researchers reported that forest therapy — basically, spending time in a forest without any tech — can reduce stress. At the end of the study, subjects who sat in natural surroundings for even a short time had decreased cortisol levels, blood pressure and heart rates. Furthermore, their parasympathetic nerve activity increased 55 percent, which is the part of your nervous system referred to as “rest and digest.” No wonder people also self-report feeling more comfortable, soothed and refreshed in a forest than in an urban setting.
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2. DECREASED NEGATIVE SELF-TALK
You know that little voice in your head that tells you you’re not good enough, not talented enough, not fit enough … simply not enough? That’s what scientists call “rumination.” And you might be able to shut it up with nature. In a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, people who went for a 90-minute walk outside reported lower levels of rumination. On top of that, brain scans showed reduced activity in a part of the brain associated with rumination.
“We’re drilling down deeper now to see if that drop in rumination explains other kinds of mood impacts of nature,” says study author Greg Bratman, PhD, a post-doctoral researcher at Stanford University.
3. REDUCED ANXIETY
One of these potential mood impacts is reduced anxiety, and the main theory behind this effect relates to evolutionary psychology. In simple terms, it states that because our ancestors associated open fields of plants, water and lack of predators as being safe, these things engage the parasympathetic nervous system and have a restorative effect, even though we don’t have to worry about the same kind of predators our ancestors did.
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Bratman adds that decreased rumination could lead to decreased anxiety, but at this point we don’t have concrete data.
4. INCREASED POSITIVE MOOD
Taking a walk in the forest has been shown to boost vigor, vitality and positive effects, which is scientific talk for ‘improving your mood.’ Other research has found decreased negative mood, Bratman says. But whether nature is increasing good feelings or reducing bad ones, it all sounds good to us.
5. BETTER MEMORY AND CONCENTRATION
Take a 15-minute walk in the park on your lunch break (you do take a break, right?), and you may boost your concentration and feel less fatigued in the afternoon, according to a recent study. And in previous research published in Psychological Science, scientists gave students a memory test, then sent half of them to walk an arboretum and the other half to walk a city street. When they came back, the nature group improved their test scores by almost 20%.
Researchers believe time spent outdoors allows the frontal lobe of the brain — which controls executive function, attention and rumination — to rest. “If you walk 30 minutes to an hour without technology, the reserves of energy that part of the brain works on are replenished,” Strayer explains.
6. MORE CREATIVITY
This power nap for the frontal lobe may also explain why spending four days in nature improved adults’ creativity scores 50% in a study by Strayer. “There’s something about being in nature, letting go, de-activating the ruminating frontal lobe and operating more in the moment,” he explains. “When you are in nature, the default mode of the brain becomes more activated, and that’s associated with mind-wandering, restfulness and restorative properties.”
Bottom Line: Get Outside
Although we don’t know exactly why, it’s clear spending time outdoors is good for you. How much exposure you need is still up for debate and seems to depend on the benefit you’re hoping to achieve — for example, it takes less time to lower blood pressure than to reduce feelings of depression. But any amount is good, and more is probably better.
“The average American spends over 10 hours in front of a screen, plus an hour or more in commute,” says Strayer. “We are becoming a nation of people tethered to digital devices and technology we invented, and we don’t unplug or get enough exercise.”
So unplug your devices, put on some sunscreen and gather some friends for a meal, workout or chat under the sun or stars. Your body will thank you.
Written by Brittany Risher, a writer, editor and digital strategist specializing in health and lifestyle content. To stay sane from working too hard, she turns to yoga, strength training, meditation and scotch. Connect with her on Twitter, Google+ and LinkedIn.
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