New research is revealing what many people have known for decades – the benefits of being outside in a natural setting. Over the years we have increased our time spent with computers, televisions and handheld devices, increased our commute times and flocked into urban areas. A side effect of these lifestyles is higher levels of stress, anxiety, depression and obesity. Another side effect is a disconnect with nature. Richard Louv author of Last Child in the Woods and The Nature Principle makes the case that ‘nature-deficit’ is contributing to obesity, attention disorders and depression.
Why is nature good for the brain?
According to Andrea Faber, PhD, most of our work day is devoted to directed-attention ability activities which helps us stay on task, take an exam or drive in heavy traffic. Directed attention—while useful for success in many life functions—demands concentrated effort. It leaves us feeling mentally fatigued and even stressed.
Contrast that with the feeling you get when immersed in nature. Most people report feeling refreshed and recharged. Walking in a forest and noticing the way the sunlight shines through the leaves as they shimmer in the wind. Watching the perpetual flow of a stream or noticing a large hawk circling overhead. These visual stimuli activate our brains involuntary attention which can help restore our directed-attention ability. Another way of putting it is what some refer to as ‘flow’ or ‘being in the moment’. When you walk in forest your mind can just wander from different sights, smells, and sounds taking attention away from work and financial stress.
Dr. Alan C. Logan, co-author of Your Brain, On Nature reports brain-imaging techniques show that when healthy adults view nature scenes rich in vegetation, areas of the brain associated with emotional stability, empathy, and love are more active. These same pathways are activated when a person looks at pictures of a loved one. In contrast, viewing scenes of the built urban environment produced a significant increase in activity of the amygdala, an area of the brain associated with fear and stress. These findings support previous investigations showing that nature scenes can enhance brain-wave activity in ways that are similar to the benefits of meditation.
How to get health benefits naturally?
Make a concerted effort to get into nature more frequently. You don’t have to go up north into the wilderness for these positive mental effects. The studies have shown that walking in parks, waterfront trails, and ravines within cities still provide benefit. Instead of heading to the gym to run on the treadmill for 20 minutes – find an outdoor trail or park to run in. Skip the spinning class in place of an outdoor ride or hike in a ravine. Just try and find balance to your hectic lifestyle and enjoy nature the way we are programmed to do!
Author’s note: Although I’ve been convinced of nature’s restorative power since my earliest memories growing up with a river in my front yard and a forest in the back I’ve decided to undergo the 30 x 30 nature challenge put on by The David Suzuki Foundation. I will commit to spending at least 30 minutes in nature every day in June with my 2 year old son.
This article is also featured on The GoodLife Blog.