It’s common knowledge that exercise is good for both mental and physical health, but most people don’t know that where you do it can also have a big impact. A large and growing body of research shows that being outside, specifically being surrounded by green space, expounds upon the already potent mental health benefits of exercise.
A Stanford University led study of found that participates who spent 90 minutes walking in nature showed decreased levels of activity in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, the area associated with rumination. Rumination is often a precursor to depression. Participants who took their 90 min walk in an urban setting did not experience any decrease in activity in the prefrontal cortex. City dwellers have significantly higher rates of anxiety and mood disorders than those who live in more rural areas, but studies Stanford’s indicate that some of this difference may be due to the lack of time spend in nature.
Even when not actively exercising, spending time outside can still boost mental health. A study lead by Mathew White of the European Centre for Environment & Human Health and the University of Exeter found that people who spent at least 2 hours per week in green spaces reported better mental and physical health. It did not matter if the 2 hours was spent all at once or broken up into multiple visits, however, participants who did not meet that 2-hour threshold did not experience any benefit. Additional studies have also linked spending time in nature to lower blood pressure, reduce stress hormone levels, a stronger immune system, and lower levels of anxiety as well as many other benefits.
Children and Nature
Children under the age of 12 specifically benefit greatly from unstructured, uninterrupted playtime in natural spaces. On top of building fine and gross motor skill, lowering risk of obesity and improving focus there’s also growing evidence that it may improve mental health in adulthood. Introducing children to a wooded area and giving them a few uninterrupted hours to run, climb, explore and build can be a great way to not only burn energy from being cooped up but also invest in their future physical and mental health.
How do we get more time outside?
So how do we use this information to our benefit during a time of quarantine? You don’t need to take a trip to the mountains or lake to experience the benefits of being in nature. Any predominantly green area works well. If you are lucky enough to have a backyard or private green space, take advantage of it! This kind of space is ideal because of its privacy and isolation from other people, but there are still many of options a back yard isn’t available. Parks, forests, hiking trails, beaches, ponds, marshes and lakes are all great options that are large enough to remain at a safe distance from other people. Get creative, too! If you have a porch that looks out onto a relatively peaceful and green area take advantage of it, and if the weather is pleasant enough, take your work outside. You just may find that you’re more productive and more creative.
Social and physical distancing should still be your number one priority. Stay a minimum of 6 feet away from other people and return to your destination later if there are too many people in the area. Try to find places that aren’t highly trafficked. This may be a good time to (safely) “stray off the beaten path.”
While the research my not yet have clear on the specifics, what is clear is that spending time in natural spaces is beneficial to mental health, and you’d don’t need to suffer from mental illness to reap the benefits. This is a stressful time for almost everyone, and it’s more important now than ever to make sure you prioritize your mental health for yourself and those around you. If it’s an option for you, spending some time in nature is a fantastic way to take care of your mental health.