Ever realize how recharged you feel after a walk in the woods or a splash in a cool pond? Getting outside and into - or even close to - nature has been scientifically proven to reduce stress and improve mental well-being. Several studies suggest that even a trip to the backyard or a city park can provide health and psychological benefits.
University of Utah neuroscientist David Strayer, a world-renown researcher on the topic, maintains that "being in nature allows the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s command center, to dial down and rest, like an overused muscle." He often practices what he calls the "Three Day Effect" - a sort of "cleaning of the mental windshield that occurs when we’ve been immersed in nature long enough."
“On the third day (in nature) my senses recalibrate—I smell things and hear things I didn’t before,” Strayer says.
In his years of research on the psychological and cognitive effects of the outdoors, Strayer has found time in nature to be a powerful antidote to the constant distraction of our digital lives. In his studies individuals who have spent time in nature consistently demonstrated higher-level thinking, increased creativity and an improved attention span.
But it doesn't stop there. Mounting scientific evidence supports that just being close to nature is beneficial to both mind and body...
- A recent study analyzed mental health data from 10,000 city dwellers and found that people living near more green space reported less mental distress, even after adjusting for income, education, and employment (all of which are also correlated with health).
- In 2009 a team of Dutch researchers found a lower incidence of 15 diseases—including depression, anxiety, heart disease, diabetes, asthma, and migraines—in people who lived within about a half mile of green space. The relation was strongest for anxiety disorder and depression.
- In 2015 an international team determined that adding 10 trees per city block makes residents healthier. Those living on blocks with more trees showed a boost in heart and metabolic health equivalent to what one would experience from a $20,000 gain in income. Lower mortality and fewer stress hormones circulating in the blood have also been connected to living close to green space.
- One large scale study concluded that nature walks were associated with significantly less depression and that they reduced the negative effects of stress.
Data suggest that people who walked for 90 minutes in a natural area, as opposed to participants who walked in a high-traffic urban setting, showed decreased activity in a region of the brain associated with a key factor in depression.
In an effort to connect people with nature to discover its healing properties, countries like Japan and South Korea have created "Healing Forests," where one can go to find "calm, balance and good health."
In today's stress-filled world, everyone chooses to blow off steam differently. Whatever your preference, it's important to take time for yourself and get outside in a natural environment - whether in your backyard, a city park or off-the-grid while performing your own "three day effect" test.
When we get closer to nature—be it untouched wilderness or a backyard tree—we do our overstressed brains a favor.
Science is proving what we've always known intuitively: nature does good things to the human brain—it makes us healthier, happier, and smarter. - National Geographic
Additional References: Maas, J. et al. Morbidity is related to a green living environment. The Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, published online October 15, 2009. Maas, J. et al. Physical activity as a possible mechanism behind the relationship between green space and health: A multilevel analysis. BMC Public Health, Vol. 8, June 10, 2008, p. 206. Maas, J. et al. Social contacts as a possible mechanism behind the relation between green space and health. Health & Place, Vol. 15, June 2009, pp. 586-95. van den Berg, A. E. Green space as a buffer between stressful life events and health. Social Science & Medicine, Vol. 70, April 2010, pp. 1203-10.
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