We used to be born in it. Raised in it. We had no option but to “forest bathe” for the vast majority of our lives. Now, hundreds of years later, going outside has become a shockingly infrequent thing for many of us. Our lack of exposure to the natural world has impacted our health so negatively it has become a diagnosis of sorts: nature-deficit disorder. We know being out in nature feels good, but new research suggests this free miracle drug goes much further than that.
Whether it’s walking around a local park for a half hour or going on a week long backpacking trip, getting outside is a healthful choice.
5+ Reasons to Explore the Outdoors
1. Calm Your Mind
Research shows that getting out in green spaces reduces anxiety and stress. And why wouldn’t it? Getting outside means going back to the basics, back to where we first started learning and growing.
- When compared to urban environments, exposure to natural environments results in better recovery from both physiological (physical) stress and mental fatigue.
- If your neighborhood has high levels of “green” in it, you can harness some of nature’s de-stressing effects by going on a walk around. However, finding your way to larger, more structured park spaces has a stronger relaxing effect.
- You don’t necessarily have to walk in nature to de-stress, gardening also has the ability to lower stress hormone levels.
Feel less anxious
- In an analysis of health survey results in Wisconsin, living in greener neighborhoods was associated with lower anxiety.
- In a study done on young males, walking in urban parks reduced anxiety (even during the winter).
2. Focus Better (reduce ADD/ADHD)
There is a lot of research that suggests time outdoors leads to better focus. Of all the benefits on this list, this one likely has the most robust research behind it at the moment. The focusing effects of time in nature are especially pronounced in children. In fact, walks in the park and physical activity in general have been so successful in reducing ADHD symptoms that they can be seen as a low-cost treatment with minimal side effects.
3. Increase Your Happiness
Many of the studies cited in the anxiety portion of this post (#1) also found reductions in depression.
One powerful analysis compared same-sex twin pairs (4,338 individuals) to determine the effect of green space on mental health. Researchers found that higher access to green spaces was associated with less depression. This positive effect persisted even after researchers adjusted their analysis to compensate for other factors that could be different between twin pairs, including income and physical activity.
4. Fortify Your Physical Health
When study participants visited a forest vs a city, they experienced an increase in healthy immune function. In this case, this meant their virus and tumor-fighting NK cells (natural killer cells) became more active and their body made more anti-cancer proteins. In a later study, a forest day trip’s effects on the immune system lasted for more than 30 days.
These results suggest that even one trip a month has lasting anti-cancer effects.
In elderly patients with chronic heart failure, forest bathing resulted in lower levels of a hormone associated with an overworked heart.
Vitamin D Levels (Thanks to Sunshine)
Being outdoors means more opportunities for your skin to use sunlight for vitamin D production. Adequate levels of vitamin D are required for optimal immune, bone, and skin and hair health. Considering that more than a third of U.S. adults are vitamin D deficient, some gentle sun exposure is a good idea.
Children who spend more time outside are less likely to develop nearsightedness (myopia). This effect occurs independently of hours spent doing near work, parental nearsightedness, and physical activity. Playing outside for an extra 40 minutes a day at school had similar vision protecting effects in Chinese school children.
Reduced risk of type 2 diabetes and obesity
In a study of more than 10,000 individuals in the UK, increased neighborhood green space was associated with lower levels of type 2 diabetes. When researchers reviewed the results of 66 studies, they found more green spaces usually resulted in less obesity.
5. Live Longer
In an analysis of over 100,000 women, those who lived in areas with more green vegetation were less likely to die over the course of the 8-year study.
When researchers looked at the results of 12 studies together (one of which included more than 43 million individuals), they found that living in green spaces reduced mortality. This difference occurs primarily as a result of fewer cardiovascular disease-related deaths.
How do you find trails and parks near you?
To harness all of these health-boosting effects, it’s a good idea to scope out trails and parks near you. AllTrails is a good app to start on, as it allows you to select trail preferences (like pet-friendly) and provides a thorough map and plenty of local suggestions. To find a national park near you, use this handy search engine.
Whether you make it out into green spaces every day or forest bathe once a month, being out in nature will give your brain and body a boost.