When you spend time among the trees, hearing twigs snap beneath your feet and birds calling out to each other from above, it does something to your brain. Walking in nature is refreshing and reinvigorating in ways that other exercise and leisure activities just aren’t. And it’s more than just good vibes and fresh air. Scientific evidence shows us that there are measurable cognitive, emotional, and physical benefits to spending time in the great outdoors.
In a society that’s indoors about 90% of the time, it can be challenging to get your daily or weekly dose of nature—especially if there isn’t a green space within walking distance of your home or work. Here’s why you should make the extra effort to get out and enjoy the natural world whenever possible.
Let nature boost your cognitive health
Walking or resting in nature can help refresh and reinvigorate a tired brain. There’s a large, still-growing body of scientific evidence supporting the positive effects of nature on sleep quality and quantity, stress levels, social interactions, memory, attention, creativity, and other aspects of cognitive and mental health.
A 2019 study published in Current Directions in Psychological Science found that exposure to natural environments may improve working memory, cognitive flexibility, and attentional control. Exposure to urban environments, on the other hand, was linked to attention deficits. In one example, adults assigned to public housing had an easier time concentrating and paying attention if they had a public green space in their neighborhood.
Adults aren’t the only ones who can benefit from a bit of nature walking. The same study found that children with regular access to green spaces showed increased self-control behaviors and cognitive development.
Even taking a break to look at pictures of flowering meadows or other green environments for a single minute may give your brain a boost and make it easier to think and concentrate. Listening to nature sounds, such as crickets chirping or waves crashing, has also been found to mimic the cognitive effects of actually spending time outdoors.
Why does nature have such a significant impact on brain function?
Researchers have a few theories to explain nature’s positive effects on the brain. Some contribute them to our ancestors’ connection with the natural world, where they had to rely on their environment for survival. Others think that nature triggers a physiological response that lowers stress levels in humans. Another theory suggests that green spaces act as a sort of cognitive “charger,” replenishing your brain’s natural energy and making it easier to focus and pay attention.
In reality, several factors may be behind nature’s effects on cognitive health. However, one thing that’s for sure is that your brain can benefit greatly from any time spent outdoors surrounded by plants and fresh air.
Leave your emotions in the forest
Nature can inspire a wealth of positive feelings, including joy, calmness, and creativity. When you feel connected to the natural world around you, you may start to feel less anxious or depressed, as well as a greater confidence that your life is worthwhile.
Current research supports the link between contact with nature and increased happiness, subjective well-being, and positive social interactions. There’s also evidence that walking in nature may decrease mental distress and increase your sense of purpose and meaning, helping create a more positive outlook on life.
Children who grow up in homes with green spaces, like backyards, may have a lower risk of psychiatric disorders as they grow into adolescence and adulthood. Growing up with regular access to the natural world may reduce a child’s future risk of depression, mood disorders, eating disorders, schizophrenia, and substance use disorder by as much as 55%.
Whether you’re hiking up a forested mountain or spending your lunch break in a pocket park downtown, any time spent in nature can boost your mood. Plus, feeling a connection to the natural environment may make you a happier person overall, even when you can’t break away from your routine to go on a nature walk.
Like your cognitive health, emotional well-being can also benefit from looking at images of nature—or experiencing nature in virtual reality. It’s not going to be the same as actually spending time outdoors, but it’s definitely better than nothing.
How can outdoor exercise affect your mood?
You’re probably aware that physical exercise can positively affect your mental health. By moving your workout outdoors, you can improve your mood even more. A 2015 study looked at the difference between walking 90 minutes in a natural setting and walking 90 minutes in a high-traffic urban area. The people who went on the nature walk showed lower activity in parts of the brain linked to depression and repetitive negative thoughts, making it easier to see the sunny side of life. To get even more positivity from your workout, try to climb at least 650 feet (200 meters) in elevation during your outdoor exercise.
Invigorate your natural self
Your brain isn’t the only part of your body that gets a little boost when you spend time in nature. Exercising in the great outdoors (sometimes called green exercise) may be better for your physical health than working out in a gym or at home. Hiking and walking trails are great spots to get your heart pumping, and they can also help you get even more out of your workout. People with an outdoor exercise routine are more likely to visit natural spaces more often and for longer durations than people who work out indoors or in urban settings. They’re also more likely to exercise more frequently and more intensely.
Working out in nature is more likely to leave you feeling revitalized and energetic than exercising indoors. It’s also the key to getting greater enjoyment and satisfaction from your physical activity, motivating you to repeat your workout again and again.
So what constitutes green exercise? It’s any outdoor physical activity near natural features, such as trails, trees, bushes, rocks, icefalls, lakes, beaches, and oceans. Common nature-friendly exercises include walking, running, cycling, kayaking, sailing, surfing, mountain climbing, skiing, and snowboarding.
Can exercising in nature help your gut health?
Your mycobiome, or fungal microbiome, is the community of microscopic fungi that live in and on your body. You’ve probably heard about how your gut flora—the bacteria, fungi, and other organisms that make up your gut microbiome—can impact your physical and mental health. Your mycobiome is an important part of that.
The healthy fungi in your microbiome help keep you healthy and make sure your microbiome’s bacteria do their jobs. If your mycobiome isn’t protected, it can contribute to health problems in the respiratory tract, oral cavity, gastrointestinal tract, urinary tract, skin, and other body parts.
Harsh soaps and antifungal medications can strip your mycobiome of the healthy fungi it needs to function, leaving your microbiome open for potentially harmful fungi to move in. Once in your mycobiome, these fungi can cause infection, immune system dysregulation, psychological disease, and other health conditions.
If your mycobiome is running a little low on healthy fungi, a walk in nature might be just the thing you need to restore the balance. Natural settings like forests (and even urban green spaces) are chock-full of beneficial fungi that will be more than willing to join your mycobiome and start working to keep you healthy.
Finding your green space
Depending on where you live, accessing and enjoying nature may be challenging. A 2018 study published in Landscape and Urban Planning found that people who lived in suburban or urban areas tended to visit nature spaces less often and for shorter times than those who lived in rural areas. Further, people living in urban areas with the least time in nature tended to have the worst overall health.
It’s not all bad news for city-dwellers, though. Those who spent the least time in nature also had the greatest potential for health improvements from spending more time in green spaces or moving somewhere more rural.
Access to nature, even urban green spaces, is linked to decreased heart rate, violence and mortality, as well as increased mood, physical activity, and attention span. Since much of nature is public lands, you’d think that everyone has a relatively equal opportunity to take advantage of the free health and wellness benefits of walking in nature. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.
Many people in urban areas face various obstacles to accessing public lands, such as an absence of nearby parks and a lack of transportation. When there’s no park or nature trail near your neighborhood, and you have no way to travel to one, you simply get left out of these public green spaces. Worse yet, it can feel like you’re being actively discouraged from enjoying them, which may (understandably) make you less likely to visit public lands even when you have the opportunity.
How can we increase access to public lands?
Given the inherent health benefits of green spaces, inequitable access to nature may be seen as a public health issue—one that disproportionately affects people of color and low-income communities because they’re most often left out of decision-making and park planning.
Organizations like The Wilderness Society are working to overcome these challenges and make public lands easier to access. Their Urban to Wild program seeks to uplift diverse voices and create more frequent opportunities for people who living in urban environments to spend time enjoying the natural world.
By advocating for public transportation, supporting community leadership programs, and investing in state, local, and national parks, The Wilderness Society and similar organizations hope to create a world in which people are more connected to the natural world around them, no matter where they live.
There’s something inherently special about time spent exploring a forest, beach, mountain, or even a city park. Walking and relaxing in nature tend to make people happier, healthier, more inspired, and more motivated to care for wild spaces. So, the more people enjoy the natural world, the more likely they are to protect it so others can enjoy it too.