Urban dwellers need to get out in nature for their mental health
Have you ever gone on a hike, walked through a field, or even eaten lunch at the park on your break and noticed how good you felt afterward? It’s not just a coincidence. Taking walks in nature can lead to a lower risk of depression, according to findings from a study published in the Proceeding of the Natural Academy of Science, conducted by Gregory Bratman, a graduate student at Stanford University. The study found that a mere 90 minutes spent walking outdoors reduces the chances of depression.
So why is this particularly relevant now? In an age where people are glued to their screens and a growing number of people are moving to big cities – more than 50 percent of people now live in urban areas – as reported the study, it’s crucial to get away from the crowded sidewalk streets and breathe in some fresh air that Mother Nature provides.
Moreover, a study published in Environmental Science states: “Meta-analytic studies report that among individuals living in cities, the prevalence of all psychiatric disorders is increased by 38 percent, of mood disorders by 39 percent, and of anxiety disorders by 21 percent, as compared to inhabitants of rural areas.”
In the study conducted by Bratman, he wanted to observe how a walk outside might affect a person’s tendency to brood. Brooding, known as morbid rumination among cognitive scientists, is a mental state where we can’t stop chewing over the ways in which things are wrong with ourselves and our lives – a feeling with which many of us are familiar. It’s not healthy and can be a precursor for depression, especially for city-dwellers.
That “brooding” is strongly associated with increased activity in the portion of the brain known as the subgenual prefrontal cortex. The scientists of the study tracked that part of the brain before and after the nature walk. They gathered 38 healthy adult city-dwellers and asked them to complete a questionnaire to determine their normal levels of “brooding”. They also checked their brain patterns in their subgenual prefrontal cortex.
The scientists assigned half of the group to walk through a leafy, quiet, park-like portion of the Stanford campus, while the other half of the group was assigned to walk through a noisy, hectic portion of Palo Alto next to the highway. After both groups returned, scientists unsurprisingly found that blood flow to the subgenual prefrontal cortex of the highway group was still high, and their broodiness was unchanged. But the volunteers who strolled through the luscious park showed slight but meaningful improvements in their mental health, according to their questionnaire scores. They weren’t brooding, and they had reduced blood flow to their subgenual prefrontal cortex. That portion of their brains was quieter. Conclusion: nature heals.
So how exactly does nature heal? On a scientific level, a previous Stanford study states “nature scenes activate our parasympathetic nervous system in ways that reduce stress and autonomic arousal, because of our innate connection to the natural world.”
The message: get outside, and often, especially if you live next to crowded city streets. Find the nearest park or nature preserve, and get yourself well acquainted.