Benefits of Spending Time in Nature
When we think about what it means to be healthy, we often think about things like nutrition, sleep, movement, and self-care. All of these are key aspects of a healthy lifestyle, but research is showing that many of us may be missing out on a key element: spending time in nature.
While it’s easy to think of outdoor activities like hiking, biking, swimming, or even just strolling around the block as recreation or hobbies, it turns out that spending time in nature does more than just provide a fun change of scenery; it actually comes with a whole host of benefits for both mental and physical health. From improved memory and creativity to lowered stress and improved health markers, emerging research is showing that quality time in the outdoor world isn’t just a bonus – it's essential to our wellbeing.
Boost Your Brain
If you’ve ever stared out a window while trying to solve a tough work challenge or had a brilliant idea materialize while out taking a stroll, you’ve probably experienced nature’s power to improve creativity and cognitive performance.
A comparison of 13 studies on nature and cognition showed that spending time in natural environments helped participants improve working memory, recall, and goal-oriented attention more effectively than spending time in urban environments. (Urban environments actually seemed to have a negative effect on cognitive performance!)
One study from the University of Michigan found that students scored 20% better on a memory test after taking a walk in an arboretum vs. prior to the walk. Students who walked through the city did not show any consistent improvement.
Time outdoors can also help you think more creatively. A study done by psychologists from the University of Utah and the University of Kansas found that spending time outside improved people’s score on the Remote Associations Test which measures creative potential using word associations. Participants who took the test after a four-day hiking trip scored an average of 50 percent higher than those who took the test before the hiking trip.
Why does time in nature seem to have this effect on our brains? Researchers think it has to do with the variety of interesting, but non-distracting stimuli we experience in nature. As we take in the sights, sounds, smells, and other sensations of a natural setting, our brain is primed for “directed attention.”
Feeling distracted? According to a concept called Attention Restoration Theory, getting outside for a few minutes – or even just taking micro-breaks to gaze at natural scenes – can help refresh your mind and allow you to better focus on subsequent tasks.
In the words of researcher Kate Lee, “Because nature is effortlessly fascinating, it captures your attention without your having to consciously focus on it. It doesn’t draw on your attention control, which you use for all these daily tasks that require you to focus. So gazing at natural environments provides you with an opportunity to replenish your stores of attention control.”
In one study, just looking at an image of a nature for 40 seconds improved participants’ concentration on a tedious task. Those who looked at an image of a concrete roof saw a decrease in concentration after the same 40 second break.
One study even showed that out of 49 common after-school and weekend activities, those that occurred in “green spaces” had a significantly greater ability to decrease ADHD symptoms in children across a range of ages and demographics.
Improve Mental Health
Nature’s not just great for memory and productivity – it's great for reducing stress and promoting feelings of wellbeing.
A 2015 study compared the brain activity of healthy people after they walked for 90 minutes in either a natural setting or an urban one. They found that those who did a nature walk had lower activity in the brain region associated with rumination — repetitive thoughts that focus on negative emotions.
In another study, psychiatric unit researchers found that being in nature reduced feelings of isolation, promoted calm, and lifted mood among patients.
If getting outside for an extended period of time isn’t practical for you, even short exposure to natural spaces, listening to nature sounds, or viewing scenes of nature seems to make a positive impact on reducing stress hormone levels and reaping the mental health benefits of nature.
Boost Immune System
The restorative effects of nature can help reduce the body’s stress response, which seems to help improve overall health and immune response. But there’s also some evidence of other immune-boosting factors at play when it comes to spending time outdoors.
While we breathe in the fresh air, especially in forests, we breathe in phytoncides, airborne chemicals given off by plants that have antibacterial and antifungal qualities. As we breathe in these chemicals, our bodies respond by increasing the number and activity of a type of white blood cell called natural killer cells which fight infection. In one Japanese study, a 3-day “forest bathing” trip resulted in increased natural killer cell activity for more than 30 days after the trip.
Support General Health
In addition to specific markers of health such as lowered blood pressure, decreased heart rate, and improved sleep quality, there are also many broader health benefits of spending time in nature.
For example, a European Centre for Environment & Human Health study of 20,000 people found that people who spent two hours a week in green spaces of any kind were substantially more likely to report good health and psychological well-being than those who don’t. The effects applied equally to those who spent longer periods in natural environments and those who spaced out the two hours over several days, so if you can only get outside for 20 minutes a day, it’s still worthwhile!
These benefits also have implications for how our cities and even buildings are planned. A large-scale study in the Netherlands found that general health was predicted by the amount of green space within a 1-mile or 3-mile radius, and another study found that elderly Japanese adults lived longer when their homes were within walking distance of a park or other green space.
Even a view of nature has the potential to improve health outcomes. University of Pittsburgh researchers reported in 2005 that spinal surgery patients experienced less pain and stress and took fewer pain medications during their recoveries if they were exposed to natural light. An older study of patients who underwent gallbladder surgery showed that patients with a view of trees rather than a wall tolerated pain better, appeared to nurses to have fewer negative effects, and spent less time in a hospital.
Benefits of Spending Time in Nature: The Bottom Line
Between working, riding in cars, and living in urban environments, humans have become increasingly disconnected from nature. Even so, it only requires a little extra intention to incorporate more nature into our daily lives. From a lunchtime stroll or visit to the local park to a weekend in the woods, any time spent in nature can help you experience the many benefits to your mental and physical wellbeing.
Environmental researcher and author Florence Williams sums it up well: “We all need nearby nature: we benefit cognitively and psychologically from having trees, bodies of water, and green spaces just to look at. We need quick incursions to natural areas that engage our senses. Everyone needs access to clean, quiet and safe natural refuges in a city...But as the poets, neuroscientists and river runners have shown us, we also at times need longer, deeper immersions into wild spaces to recover from severe distress, to imagine our futures and to be our best civilized selves.”