The fresh-air brain cure: How getting outside can boost your mental health
With the pandemic forcing restrictions on a wide swath of indoor activities, a lot of people rediscovered the joys of getting out in nature. In fact, in a recent poll 75% of Canadians say spending time outdoors is more important to them than ever before, and a whopping 94% are getting closer to nature to relieve stress and anxiety.
These people seem to be on to something. For years, researchers around the world have been studying the effects of nature on the human brain, and the findings have been overwhelmingly positive. Getting outside offers rewards beyond decreasing stress and replenishing mental energy. It can help improve focus, sharpen memory and dispel negative thoughts—and can even change the way we think.
Having trouble concentrating? Get outside. Nature can help improve our concentration, and natural beauty can even elicit feelings of awe – a sure way to boost the psyche.
Take, for example, the Japanese practice of forest bathing, or shinrin-yoku. This is simply being nestled in nature and taking in the sights, smells and sounds of your surroundings. Those who participate in this practice are said to be less anxious, less fatigued and less confused. They’re also better at performing creative problem-solving tasks.
Spending time outside can mirror the effects of meditation and help get rid of mental fog. The best part? Any natural space will do, so there’s no need to arrange an elaborate hike or trek to the deep wilderness.
Fine-tune your memory
Looking at natural scenery truly helps our cognitive function. A study conducted by the University of Michigan found that participants performed 20% better on a memory test after walking around an arboretum, while those who walked down a city street did not improve their test results.
If you find you’re getting forgetful, take a nature break and head out to a park or garden. Even a few minutes in a natural environment will kick-start your brain.
Chase away bad thoughts
If negative thoughts are invading your head space, it's a great idea to "walk it off in the garden". We’re less likely to dwell on fears, frustrations and anxieties when we’re out in nature. In fact, seeing greenery prevents our brain from physically doing so.
Stanford University researchers did an experiment that sent two groups of participants on different types of walks. One group walked through a high-traffic urban setting, the other through a natural landscape. When comparing the brain scans from the two groups, researchers found that activity in the part of the brain responsible for obsessive negative thought was much lower in the group that walked in the natural setting as compared to the urban walkers.
Accessing the mental health benefits of being outdoors doesn’t have to be complicated—a short walk surrounded by flora and fauna is enough to positively recharge the brain. It’s just a matter of getting out the door. The fresh-air brain cure is as easy as a walk in the park. Literally.
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