How Walking In Nature Changes The Brain

By Di Westaway | CEO Wild Women On Top

“When we walk, we naturally go to the fields and woods: What would become of us, if we walked only in a garden or a mall?” wrote Henry David Thoreau in The Atlantic in 1862.

I always start my day with exercise. Honestly, I love it. 

But then, as the day goes on, stuck in my office staring at a computer screen all day long, I often feeling like a caged lioness.

My brain hurts, my eyes blur. I drink lots of herbal tea, skip to the loo every hour or so and take my phone calls walking. Keep moving, I tell myself.  But I long for our office dance break at 3pm, and till then all I can think about is nibbling – activated almonds, a few dates, trying to avoid the chocolate.

Is there something wrong with me?

Apparently not. Sitting inside all day is just not natural; it’s not good for us. And, not surprisingly, urbanisation is associated with increased levels of brooding and mental illness, including depression.

Recent studies, highlighted in this week’s New York Times shows that walking in nature has great health benefits including decreased anxiety, reduced brooding, less negativity and increased positivity, as well as increased memory performance.

The article explains how 'brooding, which is known among cognitive scientists as morbid rumination, is a mental state familiar to most of us, in which we can’t seem to stop chewing over the ways in which things are wrong with ourselves and our lives. This broken-record fretting is not healthy or helpful. It can be a precursor to depression and is disproportionately common among city dwellers compared with people living outside urban areas, studies show.'

Scientists have suggested that decreased nature experience may help to explain the link between urbanization and mental illness. But new research, from the National Academy of Science in the US, shows that walking in nature changes the brain – in a good way.

This study took healthy participants on a brief nature experience, a 90-min walk in a natural setting. This lead to decreases in both self-reported rumination and neural activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex (sgPFC), whereas a 90-min walk in an urban setting has no such effects on self-reported rumination or neural activity.

This study reveals a pathway by which nature experience may improve mental well-being and suggests that accessible natural areas within urban contexts may be a critical resource for mental health in our rapidly urbanizing world.

Another study, by Stanford University extends previous research by demonstrating additional benefits of nature experience on affect and cognition. They found that people who walked briefly through a lush, green portion of the Stanford campus were more attentive and happier afterward than volunteers who strolled for the same amount of time near heavy traffic.

So, note to self … and to everybody who spends too much time inside, nature is our gym, the mountains are our garden of Eden, and we will be doing ourselves and our families a big favour by getting out there EVERY DAY.

And if you’re still not convinced, here’s the other scientifically proven health benefits:

Walking in nature:

  •     Makes you happy
  •     Stimulates the brain
  •     Improves circulation
  •     Controls depression
  •     Improves athletic performance
  •     Improves immunity
  •     Enhances memory
  •     Reduces anxiety
  •     Helps battle colds and flu
  •     Speeds recovery time after sickness
  •     Reduces brooding thoughts
  •     Enhances creativity
  •     Massages internal organs
  •     Speeds healing
  •     Reduces cancer
  •     Combats obesity
  •     Helps prevent diabetes

It’s as hard and easy as opening your front door and taking that first step. You’ll LOVE it.

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