There’s a reason why the sounds of nature — chirping birds, flowing streams, falling rain — are often sound options for white noise machines and meditation apps: They’re calming.
A new small study published in Molecular Psychiatry further underscores this. The study found that a one-hour nature walk reduces stress when compared to a one-hour walk in a bustling city environment.
The study followed 63 people who were randomly assigned a nature walk or an urban walk. The nature walk took place in a forest in Berlin and the urban walk took place on a busy street in the city.
Participants were instructed not to check their phones or stop in stores while on their walk. They were given a bagged lunch and a phone with a 30-minute timer that instructed them to turn around.
Before the walk, participants filled out a questionnaire and then underwent an fMRI scan that measured two tasks.
The first task measured brain activity during a “fearful faces task,” in which participants were shown 15 female and 15 male faces that either had a neutral or scared expression. The second task measured was brain activity during an “Montreal Imaging Stress Task,” which is designed to create a level of stress in participants. During the task, participants had a set amount of time to solve challenging arithmetic problems.
After the walk, participants filled out another questionnaire and underwent another fMRI scan that measured the same tasks they conducted before their walk.
The results showed that nature significantly improved people’s stress levels.
The study found that those who took part in the 60-minute nature walk experienced lower stress levels following their time outside.
“The results of our study show that after only [a] one-hour walk in nature, activity in brain regions involved in stress processing decreases,” Sonja Sudimac, the lead author of the study, told Medical News Today.
Particularly, the researchers found the brain’s amygdala activity (which is responsible for our stress and fear response) decreased in those who were in the nature walk group.
This decrease was not seen in people who completed the city walk. According to the study, urban environments can negatively impact one’s mental health, leading to increased rates of anxiety, depression and mood disorders. (Just think about the stress that comes with frequently honking horns, running to catch a bus or dealing with long lines just to get some groceries.)
In fact, other studies show that mental health can suffer in urban areas because of the crowded nature of cities and, in general, the increased amount of stressors throughout the environment.
It’s worth noting that the study had a few limitations: All participants were from a similar background and the study could not control who participants saw on their walk. So, for example, if someone on a walk in the forest saw someone relaxing on their day off, it could have further decreased the stress response in the participant.
This study also only focused on the benefits of a one-hour-long nature walk — it’s unclear if the same positive results would occur in a shorter amount of time. But, Sudimac told Medical News Today that there is evidence that levels of the stress hormone cortisol decrease after a 15-minute nature walk, which would make a version of this study that looked at shorter walks interesting.
Plus, outside of this study, there is extensive research on the positive effects of the outdoors, so it’s not hard to conclude that even a few minutes outside is better than nothing.
Beyond decreased stress, nature has other benefits.
“Many of us just don’t get enough of nature, and a walk is a fantastic way to focus on taking in air, walking on mother earth, listening to the leaves rustling, the birds chirping, essentially ‘forest bathing,’” she said.
Forest bathing has a number of benefits, she pointed out: It can help improve mindfulness, can be meditative and can improve your breathing.
Spending time outside has also been shown to improve your sleep, increase your creativity and boost your immune function.
Whether you live in a city or a rural area, try to prioritize nature walks.
The results are clear: Spending time in nature is good for your mental health. But don’t be discouraged if you live in a city. It’s important to note that the study’s nature walk took place in an urban forest within the city of Berlin.
So, even just a walk through your local park or nature reserve can help you achieve a sense of calm. The key is getting around green space ― and dedicating 60 minutes to moving your body and soaking up the outdoors.
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