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The Science Behind Beneficial Effects of Being Outdoors

ByKim Robson:

In the past, we’ve discussed the beneficial effects of being outdoors, specifically how it makes us feel happier. Avid gardeners can attest to the peaceful feeling that the physical act of gardening brings, that it’s a stress reducer and mood lifter. As it turns out, there is hard science backing this phenomenon, lending credibility to the claims of gardeners and nature walkers.

Believe it or not, there’s a natural antidepressant in soil. It’s a microbe called Mycobacterium vaccae and it has a similar effect on neurons that antidepressant drugs like Prozac provide. The bacterium stimulates production of serotonin, a hormone that makes you feel relaxed and happy. Mycrobacterium microbes in soil are also being investigated for improving cognitive functionand possibly playing a role in fighting Crohn’s disease and rheumatoid arthritis. 

Also, exposure to negative ions can increase serotonin levels, easing depression, relieving stress, and increasing daytime energy. Forget those machines or pretty salt lamps, though: they’re useless. Instead, get yourself outdoors, preferably near a seashore or waterfall for the best effect.

There are many other ways in which being outdoors may be physically beneficial to overall health. Follow the links to read the full studies.

Reducing Stress— In addition to increasing serotonin levels, studies have found that being in nature also decreases levels of cortisol, a hormone related to stress and often used as a marker for measuring it. Read the science on “forest bathing” and “nature therapy.” Stuck indoors all day? This studyfound that simply having an office window with a view of nature lowers stress and provides higher job satisfaction.

Improving Short-Term Memory— A studyby the University of Michigan found that participants performed 20% better on a memory test after walking around an arboretum, as opposed to those who walked down a city street. Another studyof patients with depression found that walking in nature improved working memory over walking in urban settings.

Improving Focus— In this study, participants’ abilities to focus were systematically depleted. A third of the group then took a nature walk; another third walked through the city; and the remainder just chilled. When they reunited, the nature walkers scored highest on a task requiring concentration and focus. In another study, kids with ADHD were found to have better concentration after just 20 minutes outdoors in nature.

Increasing Mental Energy— The best way to fight mental fatigue is to expose yourself to “restorative environments,” i.e., getting outdoors. This studyfound participants’ mental energy restored by simply viewing pictures of nature, while viewing pictures of city scenes had no effect. Experiencing natural beauty brings a sense of awe, defined as a “feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder,” and also brings with it a mental booster shot.

Improving Creativity— This study immersed people in nature for four days and found that their performance on a creative problem-solving test improved by 50%.

Lowering Blood Pressure— This study in Japan found that, in addition to decreasing stress hormones by more than 15%, participants who walked in the forest had their average pulse rate lowered by nearly 4% and their blood pressure lowered by more than 2%.

Reducing Inflammation— This study found that spending time in the forest lowered levels of inflammation. Another studythat sent elderly patients into the forest for a week found they displayed reduced signs of inflammation. The nature trip also had a positive effect on their high blood pressure.

Preventing Nearsightedness— Studies have shown that being out in wide-open spaces can reduce the incidence of myopia (nearsightedness) in children. This studyin Taiwan examined two schools in which myopia was fairly equal. One school encouraged outdoor activity during recess; the other did not. After one year, the “outdoor recess” school students had a myopia rate of 8.41%, while the myopia rate at the other school was 17.65% — more than double.

Boosting the Immune System— Having access to parks and other green spaces stronglycorrelates to overall health. This study found that a number of life-threatening diseases such as cancer, lung disease and kidney disease were less common among those living near green spaces. 

Preventing Cancer— Early studies suggest that spending time in nature may stimulate the production of anti-cancer proteins.

The natural effects of “forest bathing” may be felt for up to three weeks after a nature trip. So, get out there and play in the dirt: it will improve your mood and your health!

About Kim Robson

Kim Robson lives and works with her husband in the Cuyamaca Mountains an hour east of San Diego. She enjoys reading, writing, hiking, cooking, and animals. She has written a blog since 2006 at kimkiminy.wordpress.com. Her interests include the environment, dark skies, astronomy and physics, geology and rock collecting, living simply and cleanly, wilderness and wildlife conservation, and eating locally.

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