”Question: Does going outside actually improve my wellness?
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- Learn about the power of the nature and how to incorporate more outdoor time in your life.
- Time in nature can improve our mental and physical health.
- Many Americans do not spend enough time outside. It is recommended to spend at least 2 hours/week at to receive the full benefits.
- Here are a few suggestions to get more time outdoors:
- Schedule time outdoors on your calendar
- Explore natural settings where you live
- Exercise outdoors
- Camp out somewhere close by, like your backyard!
- Go on a nature-oriented vacation
And, as it turns out, the power of nature to impact our wellbeing is not a new idea.
Back in the 1840s, American writer Henry David Thoreau was inspired by the outdoors.
When Thoreau left the city of Concord, Massachusetts for the woods around Walden Pond, inspiring him to write his book “Walden,” life certainly seemed less complicated than it is today.
After all, it was a time before the internet, before social media memes, and before doomscrolling.
And no one talked about job burnout. (The concept of burnout was actually only defined about 50 years ago in the 1970s.)
Maybe Thoreau needed a break from the clattering of horse carriages. Some peace and quiet to do his best creative work.
However, clearly, he was onto something.
Thoreau sensed that being in nature—with sun-dappled trees, gurgling streams, and the sound of the wind rustling the leaves—was soothing to both his mind and body.
Ever wonder why you feel so refreshed after spending time outdoors?
”There is mounting evidence, from dozens and dozens of researchers, that nature has benefits for both physical and psychological human well-being,” says Trent University Associate Professor of Psychology Lisa Nisbet, Ph.D who studies connectedness to nature.
“You can boost your mood just by walking in nature,” she says. “Even in an urban outdoor environment.”
What Does Time Outdoors in Nature Do to Our Brains?
According to a 2015 study, there were marked positive changes in the brains of people who walked for 90 minutes in a natural setting, compared to those who walked in a highly trafficked urban setting.
The researchers found that neural activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, a brain region that activates during rumination (repetitive thoughts focused on negative emotions), decreased among participants who walked in nature when compared with those who walked in an urban environment.
In fact, additional 2018 research has shown interacting with nature has a positive impact on cognitive processes in our brains.
Nature is vital to keep us emotionally, mentally, and physically healthy.
A 2019 study demonstrated that spending 20 minutes or more outdoors causes the body’s production of cortisol and other stress hormones to decrease—and this invites the brain and body to relax.
So, when we’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed, remember that spending a few minutes to go outside in nature can help to calm a busy brain.
How Many Americans Get Adequate Time Outdoors?
According to a 2019 study from The Outdoor Foundation nearly half the U.S. population doesn’t participate in outdoor recreational activities at all. What’s more, only 18% of Americans got outdoors at least once a week in 2018.
The majority of our time these days tends to be spent indoors, staring at screens, while every device we own vies for our attention. Alas, according to science—our brains weren’t cut out for this kind of bombardment.
Children are especially feeling the impact of too much screen time and too little time in nature.
According to The Child Mind Institute the average child spends about four to seven minutes a day playing outside (compared with seven hours a day in front of some type of screen!).
Kids who play outside are happier, better at paying attention, and less anxious than those who spend more time indoors. This increased focus is especially helpful for kids with ADHD.
“It’s well known that exercise releases natural ‘feel good’ hormones in the brain,” says therapist Ellen Biros, MS, LCSW, C-PD. “So, it makes sense that children who are stressed would benefit from being outside.”
According to Biros, playing outdoors enables kids to “practice managing their own actions and it encourages creativity and imagination.”
Can Nature Help Improve Mood and Decrease Anxiety?
Researchers found that participants who spent time in a forested area or an urban park or woodland had much less anxiety, felt less tension, and had much brighter moods than those who were walking around in an urban setting.
And while the Stanford study zeroed in on how walking in nature affects rumination, which has been linked to depression and anxiety, one meta-analysis out of the University of Derby in England found that people who feel more connected to nature have greater eudaimonic well-being—a type of contentment that goes beyond just feeling good and includes having meaningful purpose in life.
According to Biros, “Studies such as these have given rise to the nascent field of ecotherapy, also called nature therapy, which involves being in nature in order to boost mental health.”
“Ecotherapy can take many forms, including animal-assisted interventions, farming activities, and exercising outdoors,” she adds. “All of these contribute to reduced anxiety and depression by focusing on the symbiotic relationship between the person and nature.“
What Is Nature Deficit Disorder?
The term “nature-deficit disorder” was coined by journalist Richard Louv, author of the book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.
His book examines the human costs of alienation from nature.
Louv shares on his website that he didn’t mean for the term nature-deficit disorder to be a medical diagnosis, but rather a way to describe “an urgent problem that many of us knew was growing but had no language to describe it.”
While you won’t find the term nature-deficit disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), this condition may have real-life consequences for humans. Especially for children, who can display a wide range of behavioral problems.
The term nature-deficit disorder is gaining traction, particularly among those who are pushing to increase children’s exposure to nature.
How Much Time Outdoors Do We Need to Get to Avoid Nature Deficit Disorder?
If our human evolutionary connection to nature helps alleviate negative emotions and instills more feelings of joy, if we’re deprived of time in natural settings it stands to reason that there will be negative consequences.
A 2019 study found that people who spent two hours a week outdoors in local parks or other natural environments, either all at once or spaced out over several shorter experiences per week—were more likely to report psychological well-being than those who did not spend two hours a week outside.
“Even if you don’t have time for two hours outdoors per week, there are always benefits to getting outside and interacting with nature—even for a few hours per week,” adds Biros.
5 Ideas to Get More Time Outdoors
When it comes to finding calm and relaxation there’s no one size fits all, so find a place and activity that works for you.
If you love the smell of damp soil, then hiking a wooded trail may feel relaxing. Or, perhaps the beach with the sound of waves crashing is your happy place.
“A walk in a city park, or gardening in your backyard are both equally effective for boosting vitality and wellness,” Biros says.
1. Schedule Time Outdoors on Your Calendar
For many people nothing gets done unless it’s on the calendar. Go for a walk at lunchtime, or meet a friend for a hike rather than coffee.
2. Seek Out and Explore Natural Settings Where You Live
Sometimes we take for granted what’s right under our nose. Head for the hills, a nearby lake, or your local city park.
3. Take Your Workout Outdoors
Bring your yoga mat outside and do your sun salutations in the sunshine. If you have a meditation practice, pick a sit spot and notice the sounds of the outdoors.
4. Camp Out in Your Backyard, or on Your Rooftop or Deck
This idea comes from Richard Louv. He suggests buying or borrowing a tent, or encouraging your kids to create their own home-made teepee from a blanket, poles, or sticks. Leave it up all summer. Make s’mores, play flashlight tag, and make shadow puppets on the tent wall.
5. Go on a Nature-Oriented Vacation
According to U.S. News, since 2021, more and more people are seeking out adventure and nature vacations after being cooped up during the pandemic.