Think of your routine. How much time do you spend indulging in the gifts of Mother Earth versus how much time do you spend behind a computer screen, in the walls of your home or cubicle at work?
We get caught up in the demands and stressors of our everyday life that we only really take the time to enjoy the magnificent nature around us on our two-week yearly vacation. Yet walking outside in nature is not only pleasing to the eye but it's actually also healing and science can back that up. A study has examined the effects of just one hour of walking in nature and the power it can have on your brain. This will make you want to run to your nearest park.
We Used To Walk A Lot More
The way we live our lives today wasn't always the norm. There was a time before skyscrapers, and the convenience of malls and cars when human beings travelled thousands of miles on foot just to make it to a water well.
Whether they were happier or healthier is unclear. Still, the point is that it was never within our nature to condition ourselves to an environment where we're surrounded by noise, pollution and overstimulation. The overuse of screens and time spent indoors has been shown to be detrimental to both our physical and mental health.
Modern Environments Contribute To Anxiety
Modern conveniences surely have their perks. Being able to hop on a plane to get to the other side of the world is an incredible opportunity. However, the very same technologies that were designed to make us happier are causing depression and anxiety rates to skyrocket. Numerous studies have found that our modern and urban environments are linked to our rising rates of anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems.
Scientists explain this phenomenon with evidence that city life activates the amygdala (responsible for emotional and fear regulation) during social stress tasks compared to those living outside the city.
This means that those who are in City are constantly more stressed and in survival mode.
The Effects Of A Nature Stroll
It seems like the solution is simple: just go on more nature walks! However, the reasons behind that are what matters. That's what inspired Sonja Sudimac and her colleagues to conduct a study to investigate how a walk in nature versus the city might impact stress-related brain parts
The first finding was obvious describing that even just a short and quick nature walk held many benefits like lowering blood pressure, reducing anxiety and depression, improved mood and focus, and quicker healing. However, the study wanted to take these findings a step further:
"There has been solid research showing that exposure to nature is beneficial for mental health and cognition, but no study so far has examined neural mechanisms lying behind these effects," explained Sudimac.
The Correlation Between Mental Health And Nature
What connects nature walks with stress reduction and overall happiness comes down to the Amygdala part of the brain. To understand the correlation between improved mental health and nature, researchers wanted to really understand the difference between walking in general, like walking in the city, and walking in nature specifically.
"That is why we conducted an intervention study in which we managed to show the causal evidence — namely, amygdala activity remained stable after a walk in an urban environment, while a walk in nature markedly reduced amygdala activity," Sudimac explained.
Shown In A Study
Their study included 63 participants who were asked to complete a survey, perform a working memory task and have fMRI scans done as they answered questions. The combination of these requirements was meant to stress them out so that they could compare their stress levels before walking in nature and after.
To keep the answers honest, when the participants were recruited, they were told they would conduct an fMRI and take a walk, but they weren't told the purpose of the study.
A Walk In The Woods
The researchers had the participants take a walk either in nature or in an urban area. They were told not to use their phones or go off the designated path. What they found was that not did a walk in the woods have beneficial effects on the area of the brain that is involved with stress but the effects also took 60 minutes to activate.
Once the participants walked in nature for 60 minutes, there was less stress-related activity in their brains, and following the walk, they were able to take on the tasks that were previously scaring them, as well as able to handle social responsibilities better.
The study authors concluded that exposure to nature benefits recovery from stress by lowering amygdala activity.
First Found Evidence Of Reduction In Stress
"Going for a walk in nature is beneficial for our mental health and brain," Sudimac explains. This is what we already knew. However the study now also adds that:
“Even though many studies have shown that nature is good for our well-being, we found for the first time a causal link between exposure to nature and a reduction of stress-related brain activity. It is interesting that this effect was found only after one-hour walk, so if one doesn't have time to spend a whole day in nature, it looks that only one-hour is beneficial for our brain.”
What About A Walk In The City?
The study assessed the benefits of walking in nature by comparing results from walking around the study. Sudimac was surprised by the findings explaining that contrary to their predictions:" a walk in the city did not cause additional stress-related brain activity. The brain activity in these regions remained stable after the urban walk, which argues against a commonly held view that urban exposure causes additional stress.”
It turns out that just a walk, in general, is beneficial. The difference still is that while a walk in the city won't stress you out more, it doesn't have the same healing benefits as a walk in nature. Just because it doesn't add stress, doesn't mean it decreases like the effects of a nature walk.
The Importance Of Green Spaces In The City
Why does this matter? This is important on more than one level. On an individual level, it should encourage you to carve out time from your busy day to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city just to take a moment to literally ground yourself back with the earth and reap its natural benefits.
On another level, it speaks to the structure of society in general and of the negative impact of urban living.The study authors are pushing that city planning should include efforts to modify and design cities with better access to green spaces to protect and improve the mental health of those who live in it:
"We hope with our study to raise awareness about the importance of accessible green areas in cities," Sudimac said.
"I would like to add that these findings are also important because they confirm the importance of accessible green environments in cities," she adds. “Since more than half of the world population lives in cities and urbanization is rapidly increasing, it is crucial for urban dwellers to have a nearby park or a forest where they can to restore or 'recharge' from stressful urban environment. "
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