Summer has finally arrived in Minnesota, a welcome change from the long and dreary winter we just endured. The sun is shining, the air is warm, the breeze is fresh, the birds are making baby birds – it’s a glorious time to be outside, seasonal allergies notwithstanding. This is why Minnesotans emerge en masse as soon as the air stops hurting our faces, squinting in the sunlight, our white legs peeking out of the shorts we dug out of a box in the basement. As we soak in the sun’s blessed warmth for the first time in what seems like a bajillion years, many of us begin making a mental list of all the outdoor concerts, festivals, food trucks, sporting events and camping trips we hope to cram into this all-too-brief season. 

On some level, we know that being outdoors is good for our mental health. Why else would we feel so desperate to be outside for every. single. minute. of summer? As it turns out, there is a ton of research out there supporting what we already knew instinctively, which is that being outdoors is about more than simply getting some fresh air into our lungs. Nature has measurable and significant mental health benefits for people of all ages. But why is that and what, exactly, are those benefits? 
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What’s So Great About Outside?

For thousands of years, humans lived exclusively out in nature, co-existing with the plant and animal life around us, depending on it for survival. We learned to use cues in nature (sun, clouds, trees, plants, water, etc) to guide nearly every aspect of daily life and survival – when to wake up, what food sources might be available, what kind of weather we need to prepare for, you get the idea. It stands to reason, then, that we feel better when we are out in nature, since nature is where we historically got all the information we needed to stay alive. 

Clearly, society has changed dramatically over the past few millennia and we no longer depend on nature the way we once did. Our bodies, however, have not changed quite so much. They still yearn to interact with the natural world around us. Think about it: when you find yourself in a forest, or in the middle of a lake, or maybe just in a wooded park, have you ever noticed how your body seems to…shift? Like a head-to-toe exhale. It’s almost as if your body is saying, “Ah, I’m finally back where I belong.”  

This theory – that our bodies evolved to be in tune with nature and are therefore most at peace when in nature – is called the “biophilia hypothesis,” and there are decades of quality research studies to back it up. More recently, perhaps in response to the growing mental health crisis taking place across the globe, researchers have been honing in on the mental health benefits of being outdoors. And their findings are both fascinating and conclusive: we are happier when we go to where the wild things are. 

Ok, so let’s get into some specifics, shall we? What are these supposed mental health benefits of spending time surrounded by greenery, and just how much nature are we talking about in order to get those benefits? Here are just a few of the many ways that heading outdoors can improve your mental health (and your physical health, too!):

Being Outdoors Can Decrease Stress

Our bodies are less stressed out when we get back to our outdoorsy roots. Over 40 experimental studies have provided overwhelming evidence that being out in nature can reduce physiological markers of stress (cortisol levels, blood pressure, heart rate, etc). One study even found that merely looking at pictures of nature can decrease stress! Not only is this likely due to the whole biophilia theory I talked about earlier, but being out in nature also engages our senses in a way that modern life so often fails to do. The soothing sounds of rustling leaves, the calming greens and blues of the plants, trees and water, the scent of fresh air: all of these activate our parasympathetic nervous system, immediately calming us down and reducing the feeling of being stressed out.   

Being Outdoors Can Make You Happier

People who take a walk in nature experience a more positive mood state (translation: they feel happier) than people who go for a walk in the city. At least, that’s what researchers in Palo Alto found when they assigned 60 study participants to one or the other. While both groups reported deriving some benefit from their leisurely stroll, the nature folk reported experiencing more feel-goods than the city folk. Not only that, but the nature walkers reported less anxiety and rumination than their urban counterparts. For those of you who like numbers, it took 50 minutes for the nature walkers to experience these benefits, and they reported exactly zero negative side effects. 

Being Outdoors Can Improve Your Attention Span

I know, this one took me by surprise as well. Who knew that nature could improve your ADHD?! But sure enough, being physically active while out in nature appears to have a pretty profound impact on our executive functioning – things like attention, focus, working memory, and impulse control. And while research also shows that exercising in any setting for 20 minutes or longer can improve your executive functioning, studies that compare walking in urban areas vs. in nature have found that being in nature has more of an impact on executive functioning. Moreover, whereas it takes at least 20 minutes to receive cognitive benefits from exercising indoors, it may take as little as 15 minutes of physical activity out in nature to get those same benefits

Being Outdoors Can Improve Physical Health

The body and brain are connected, which means a happy and healthy brain relies in part on a happy and healthy body. As it just so happens, being out in nature has plenty of benefits to our physical health as well. We now have plenty of evidence to show that spending time outdoors leads to improved cardiovascular health, lower blood pressure, and improved immune function. One study even found that having a view of nature outside your hospital window may speed up recovery time after surgery. Behold the healing powers of nature!

How To Bring More Nature Into Your Life

Now that we have established at least some of the mental health benefits that can be found in nature, let’s talk about how you can incorporate this information into your daily life. If you are like most people, you already feel like your days are pretty full, and if you live in an urban jungle, the idea of routinely heading over to a nature-filled oasis might sound improbable at best. Fortunately, there are plenty of urban-friendly options to get at least some of the mental health benefits nature has to offer. Here are some ideas to help you get started:

  • Find a local park. If you live in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area, you probably know that we have some of the best parks in the country. While it might require hopping on a bus or bike, or driving a few minutes to get there, the mental health benefits of spending time in one of our many parks are well worth the effort it takes to get there. Consider making this a regular part of your daily or weekly routine. If you have a dog, there are a number of dog parks situated in park-like settings, and your dog will get to enjoy all the benefits animals also get from being in nature!
  • Bring nature to you. Can’t get to a park regularly? Bring the park to you. Adding elements of nature into your home or yard also has mental health benefits. Plant a garden or some lilac bushes (or both!). If you already have plenty of nature in your yard, make it a priority to spend time there, having a meal or reading a book, or just sitting quietly. If you don’t have a yard, consider creating a window box of flowers or planter box for your balcony. Adding flower pots and small trees to your indoor space can also provide some of the same benefits that you would get from finding them outside.
  • Face windows when possible. Since looking at nature may very well provide some of the same benefits as being in nature, find opportunities to position your chair, couch, dining room seat, or exercise equipment in front of a window that looks out into a green space. If you go to a gym that has windows, try looking out of the window while you exercise, noticing the nature happening on the other side of the glass. 
  • Go virtual. If you absolutely cannot access nature in the real world, research suggests that you can get some of the same mental health benefits by looking at and listening to nature on your phone, computer or television. You may even get more benefits by engaging with virtual nature using virtual reality goggles. Not sure where to find good-quality videos of nature? I’ve been listening to the ocean segments of this 8-hour-long video while writing this blog post, and I have to say, I’m feeling quite relaxed. Is it the same as being at the ocean? No. But it’s not bad.

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of taking care of your mental and physical health right now, even as it may seem more difficult than ever to do so. The good news is that with the arrival of summer, one of the most enjoyable ways to feel better immediately may be only minutes away. 

Feeling a little overwhelmed at the prospect of spending more time outdoors? Talk with your therapist about creating a plan for addressing whatever obstacles are in your path, to see if there are ways you can incorporate nature into your daily life. Don’t have a therapist but think you might benefit from having one? Contact us today to begin your journey to better mental health. 
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