It’s hard to find something nature doesn’t do for your mental and physical health. As little as 10 minutes in nature can move the needle on many physiological and psychological metrics of stress, according to a Cornell University review of studies.
Researchers noted that 10 to 30 minutes of sitting outside in a natural environment led to a significant decrease in heart rate, cortisol levels, and blood pressure, as well as a “significant increase in parasympathetic nervous system [rest and digest] activity, and a significant decrease in sympathetic nervous system [fight or flight] activity.” Participants also reported an increase in calm, comforting feelings, and an overall sense of being refreshed and restored.
Those mental boosts add up. “The psychological benefits of connecting with nature are feeling good and functioning well — and feeling life is worthwhile,” says Miles Richardson, PhD, head of the psychology department at the University of Derby in England and its Nature Connectedness Research Group. One of the group’s latest reviews, published in the Journal of Happiness Studies, analyzed 50 research studies involving 16,396 people. It found that, in adults, connection to nature is associated with higher levels of personal growth and eudaimonic well-being — the type of happiness or contentment achieved through self-actualization and sensing a meaningful purpose in one’s life.
Part of this benefit owes to nature’s ability to provide perspective — just think of the last time you stood in front of an expansive landscape or marveled as an army of ants assembled to march across your front step. “Being in nature increases our awareness of our environment and reframes our sense of self to connect with the greater whole,” says Angeleena May, LMHC, executive director for AMFM Healthcare, a mental and behavioral health treatment center in Southern California. “Feeling connected to something greater than ourselves, such as a vast forest or endless ocean, decreases thoughts of personal dissatisfaction and increases optimism and hope for the future.”
And the beauty is that you don’t need access to a postcard-worthy view to reap benefits. Most any nearby green space can fill your nature quotient. For example, in a study at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, researchers asked 36 people who lived in an urban environment to spend at least 10 minutes in an outdoor spot that offered a “sense of contact with nature,” at least three times a week. Judging by the decrease in biomarkers such as cortisol, they experienced significant stress reduction, with the greatest dip after 20 to 30 minutes. Beyond that duration, the calming effects continued, but at a slower rate.
Do some gardening during your outdoor time and you could derive added perks. “There are also the benefits of the unseen. The good bacteria that help keep us well are more common in natural spaces,” says Dr. Richardson. At Tampere University in Finland, when researchers dipped people’s hands in soil daily for two weeks, they found that it increased the participants’ gut microbial diversity — an indicator of a healthier microbiome. As more research connects gut health with mental health, this bonus is further feel-good news. Try any of the ideas below to get a dose of nature and its stress-busting potential.
Creative Ways To Play More Outdoors
Want to experience more time in nature but not sure where to start? Check out these tips.
- Plot a Course. Check the AllTrails app to find a hiking path near you, including its length and difficulty rating. Runners can do the same with MapMyRun and cyclists can try Strava.
- Head for the Water. Warmer weather means spending time by the water. Paddling.com has a map of over 48,000 canoeing and kayaking launch sites.
- Take Your Meditation Outside. Try the Nature Meditations Deck (Buy from Amazon, $18.95) from Kenya Jackson-Saulters, founder of the Outdoor Journal Tour. The handy set of cards lists bite-sized mindfulness practices that tap into the power of nature while you stroll your local park.
- Link Up With Others. The Road Runners Club of America lists running groups across the country. If bird-watching is more your speed, spread your wings and find clubs through the American Birding Association.
- Pitch a Tent. It’s never been easier to go camping, whether you want to rough it or not. The website ReserveAmerica.com allows you to filter campsites nationwide by amenities such as access to restrooms. Outfitters such as tentrr.com offer both private sites and those on parklands with no equipment required. Got an RV? HarvestHosts.com has a network of nearly 3,000 scenic spots nationwide where you can park for a $99 annual fee.
- Brush Up Your Skills. Learn a new sport or talent you can put to use outside — including rock climbing, mountain biking, and more — through REI Co-op’s classes, events, and day trips. Find options at rei.com/events.
- Go off the Grid. The outfitter 57Hours connects you with certified local guides who can take you on outdoor adventures — stateside, or abroad. Whether you book ice climbing in Montana, surfing in Miami Beach, or paddleboarding in Brooklyn, there’s something for nearly every sport and locale.
How To Soak It All In
Your free mental reset is right outside your front door. “Simple interactions with everyday nature can be powerful,” says psychologist Dr. Richardson. “Noticing the good things in nature each day for a week has led to significant and sustained benefits to mental health.”
- Take Quick Peeks. In a University of Melbourne study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, researchers asked college students to complete a tedious task pressing a computer key in response to certain numbers flashing on a screen. Those who took a microbreak looking at a flowering meadow green roof for 40 seconds midway through the task made significantly fewer mistakes and showed more consistent response than students who looked instead at a concrete rooftop. Choose a work-from- home location with a nature view so you can refresh your mind every time you glance away from the screen.
- Seek out Greens and Blues. “Studies have shown greenery, leaves, and trees have a substantial impact on brain activity related to decreased stress,” says Angeleena May, LMHC. Blue is valuable, too. “Oceans, streams, and water sources activate both visual and auditory senses, which is correlated with mindfulness and connecting your body with the environment.” In a review of 35 studies, researchers from the University of Barcelona found that exposure to outdoor blue spaces — those that feature water — was linked to better mental health and more physical activity.
- Get Grounded. When you’re out in the backyard or park, try spending some time barefoot. This technique, sometimes called “grounding” or “earthing” can help with pain management, stress, and sleep, according to research in the Journal of Environmental and Public Health.
- Tune In. Give some attention to the soundscape outside. A review of 18 studies done in Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, found that water sounds were most effective at improving mood and that bird sounds were actually the best for lowering stress. Meanwhile, a University of Chicago study found that people who listened to a mix of nature sounds, such as crickets chirping or wind, performed better on difficult cognitive tests than those who listened to urban sounds, such as traffic. If you can’t access the real thing, an app like Headspace (available for iOS and Android) offers calming nature sounds.
- Green Your Screen Saver. Studies show that even just looking at photos of nature can offer a bit of benefit, says May. A 2015 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that just five minutes spent looking at nature images helped support the body’s ability to recover from stress.
- Actively Appreciate the Nature Around You. Many people technically do things outside or in nature, but it’s often simply a backdrop while their attention is otherwise preoccupied. In that case, they might be spending time in nature but not connecting with it. “The sights and sounds can fall into the background,” says Dr. Richardson. To truly reap the benefits, tune in using what he calls the Green Care Code: Simply pause, look, listen, and enjoy nature. In other words, put down the smartphone and take out the earbuds. You owe that dose of connection with nature to yourself — and to the planet, says Dr. Richardson. “It’s emerging as a basic psychological need,” he says. “A need that unites human and nature’s well-being for a good life and a sustainable future.”
A version of this article appeared in our partner magazine, How To Beat Stress, in 2022.
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