Some say I’m a broken record when it comes to preaching the health benefits of getting outside for a daily walk.
Regular exercise is one of the pillars of optimum health, but, until now, I didn’t realize how vital the “outside” part of my walk is for protecting my memory against decline.
When I looked into the brain benefits of spending time in nature, I found countless studies. And all the research points to the same conclusion: your brain loves nature.
Our brains get fatigued by modern life. To boost brain function, you need to be able to relax and energize your brain.
Similar to sleep, a dose of nature allows your brain to restore itself so you can come up with creative solutions to problems. Some scientists refer to the emerging case for spending time in nature as “attention restoration theory.”
See a Tree, Get Back Your Focus
In a nutshell, this theory asserts that people can concentrate better after spending time in nature. Rachel and Stephen Kaplan explored this topic in their book, The Experience of Nature: A Psychological Perspective.
Among other things, the authors posit that nature has the power to renew attention after exerting mental energy. This may be another reason to get a breath of fresh air after performing a taxing project that requires lots of brain power.
Besides mental fatigue recovery, the authors say nature can also be a trigger for self-reflection on life, priorities and goals.
Just how much nature do you need?
A 2018 study published in The Journal of Positive Psychology found that even spending as little as five minutes outside was linked to a significant mood boost.1 Meanwhile, the Kaplans say if you can’t get outside, simply gazing at scenes of nature can make a big difference in your brain and memory function.2
But this is just the beginning…
Helps with Depression
A 2015 study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science compared the brains of participants who walked for 90 minutes through a green park on campus versus walking in a high-traffic urban setting.3
Interestingly, the researchers found that the green park walkers exhibited decreased activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain associated with depression.
“These results suggest that accessible natural areas may be vital for mental health in our rapidly urbanizing world,” writes co-author Gretchen Daily.
In a Japanese study, participants were divided into two groups. One group walked in a forest, while the other group walked in an urban center. The routes were equal in length and difficulty, and participants were measured for heart rate and blood pressure.4
Additionally, the participants filled out questionnaires about their moods and stress levels. The researchers found that those who walked in forests had significantly lower heart rates and higher heart rate variability, indicating more relaxation and less stress compared to their urban walking peers.
The researchers concluded that exercising in nature has more stress reduction benefits than exercise alone might have produced.
But make sure that when you’re out in nature you’re really stopping to smell the roses and not letting yourself be distracted.
Multi-tasking Negates the Benefits
I’ve always suspected that the folks I see walking in nature talking on their cell phones are missing out. Turns out I’m right.
David Strayer, a Stanford researcher, has been exploring the drawbacks of using devices in nature.
“If you’ve been using your brain to multitask—as most of us do most of the day—and then you set that aside and go on a walk, without all of the gadgets, you’ve let the prefrontal cortex recover,” says Strayer. “And that’s when we see these bursts in creativity, problem-solving, and feelings of well-being.”5
I couldn’t agree more.