A Nature Walk is a Great Prescription for Your Brain

1
Take a Walk in the Park to Improve Memory and Reduce Rumination

close-up of sneakers walking
Walking in Nature. FrancescoCorticchia/E+/Getty Images

Is it better to take a walk in a park or natural area rather than slogging on a treadmill or walking in an urban area? Research shows surprising benefits for walking in nature.

Stanford researcher Gregory Bratman published two studies comparing walking in an urban setting with walking in a natural park setting. In both, the walk in the park produced benefits for mood and mental acuity while the urban walk did not.

Study Shows a 50-Minute Walk in Nature Beats Urban Walk for Mood and Memory

Taking a walking break in a nearby park beats walking the sidewalks. This study of 60 participants found decreased anxiety, rumination and negative effect for the subjects who took a walk in a nature park. They also had increased working memory performance and preservation of positive affect. The walk in the park both helped their mood and got them away from negative thoughts. Taking a 50-minute walk in an urban setting did not have these benefits.

90-Minute Walk in Nature Decreased Rumination - Urban Walk Did Not

Do you constantly rehash a negative experience or have trouble getting a problem out of your mind? Rumination is a destructive mental habit that is associated with risk of depression.

The Stanford researchers found that a 90-minute walk in a natural setting decreased self-reported rumination. They went further to measure this with a brain scan of neural activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex (sgPFC), which is associated with rumination. They found decreased activity in this brain area, confirming the self-reported results.

Walking in an urban environment did not decrease self-reported rumination or activity in the sgPFC. "Accessible natural areas within urban contexts may be a critical resource for mental health in our rapidly urbanizing world," the study concludes.

Walking in a Park Affects Brain Differently From Walking in Urban Zone

Does your brain operate differently when walking in a green space compared to an urban area?

A study in Edinburgh measured how subjects' brains reacted. They wore a mobile EEG recorder while taking a 25-minute walk through three different environments. Their walk took them first through a busy shopping zone, then into a green space, and then into a busy commercial zone. Analysis of the brain activity showed evidence of lower frustration, engagement and arousal, and higher meditation when moving into the green space zone; and higher engagement when moving out of it.

It may be great for your mood and mental functioning to include green space along your walking routes.

If you walk during lunch or break time, try to make a green space or park part of your walking route.

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Walking in the Forest Has Measurable Effects to Reduce Stress

Walking with dog
Jordan Siemens/The Image Bank/Getty Images

The Japanese tradition of Shinrin-yoku "forest bathing" is recognized by their government as beneficial for relaxation and stress relief. They conducted studies to show that there were measurable effects.

A small study published in 2010 compared salivary cortisol, blood pressure, pulse rate, and heart rate variability after subjects walked in a forest area for about 15 minutes and spent 15 minutes viewing it, compared with doing the same in a city environment.

The subjects who walked in the forest had lower concentrations of cortisol (which is associated with stress), lower pulse rate, lower blood pressure, greater parasympathetic nerve activity, and lower sympathetic nerve activity compared with their measurements after walking in city environments.

The research was repeated with a larger cohort of 420 subjects. Published in 2011, this study found a 12.4% decrease in cortisol level, 7.0% decrease in sympathetic nervous activity, 1.4% decrease in systolic blood pressure, and 5.8% decrease in heart rate when either walking or sitting in a forest environment. Parasympathetic nerve activity increased by 55.0%, indicating a relaxed state.

These measurable effects of stress relief by walking in the forest and viewing the forest might encourage you to seek out wooded areas for your regular walks.

3
A Walk In the Park Helps Children with ADHD

Family Hiking Through Flowers in Idaho
Family Hiking Through Flowers in Idaho. © Karl Weatherly / Photographer's Choice / Getty

A small study published in 2009 showed a large effect on children with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) when they took a 20-minute walk in a city park.

The study compared the effects of a walk in different environments had on concentration as measured by the Digit Span Backwards test. The children aged 7-12 years old were previously diagnosed with ADHD. On three different weeks, each child took a walk in a city park, in a city downtown area, and in a neighborhood.

The 20-minute park walk elevated attention performance in amounts comparable to using methylphenidate (Ritalin). The walk in the park had a much greater effect than walking in the downtown area or walking in the neighborhood.

This study suggests that regular walks in natural environments could be beneficial to children with ADHD.

4
Increased Mood and Mental Health Benefits of Outdoor Exercise

Woman hiking on board walk through forest
Walking Outdoors. Jordan Siemens / The Image Bank / Getty Images

Exercise in any environment is good. Is there a greater benefit to be found in exercising outdoors?

Researchers looked back at 11 controlled studies that compared the effects of outdoor exercise with those conducted indoors on physical or mental well-being outcomes.

The review found increased benefits for mood and mental well-being for exercising in natural environments compared to exercising indoors. The study abstract cites these findings:

  • More: positive engagement, energy, and feelings of revitalization.
  • Less: tension, confusion, anger, and depression.
  • The study abstract also notes that people felt less calm after outdoor exercise.
  • People enjoyed the outdoor exercise more and said they were more likely to do it again.

These results are a good excuse to keep enjoying outdoor exercise.

Sources:

J. Thompson Coon, K. Boddy, K. Stein, R. Whear, J. Barton, M. H. Depledge. "Does Participating in Physical Activity in Outdoor Natural Environments Have a Greater Effect on Physical and Mental Wellbeing than Physical Activity Indoors? A Systematic Review." Environmental Science & Technology, 2011; : 110203115102046.

Peter Aspinall, Panagiotis Mavros, Richard Coyne, Jenny Roe. "The urban brain: analysing outdoor physical activity with mobile EEG." Br J Sports Med doi:10.1136/bjsports-2012-091877

Gregory N. Bratman, et. al. "The benefits of nature experience: Improved affect and cognition." Landscape and Urban Planning (Impact Factor: 2.61). 03/2015; 138:Pages 41–50. DOI: 10.1016/j.landurbplan.2015.02.005

Bratman GN, Hamilton JP, Hahn KS, Daily GC, Gross JJ. "Nature experience reduces rumination and subgenual prefrontal cortex activation." Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2015 Jun 29. pii: 201510459. [Epub ahead of print]

Probing the Depression-Rumination Cycle. By Bridget Murray Law. American Psychological Association, November 2005, Vol 36, No. 10

Andrea Faber Taylor and Frances E. Kuo. "Children With Attention Deficits Concentrate Better After Walk in the Park." Journal of Attention Disorders. 2009 Mar;12(5):402-9. doi: 10.1177/1087054708323000. Epub 2008 Aug 25.

Bum Jin Park, Yuko Tsunetsugu, Tamami Kasetani, Takahide Kagawa, and Yoshifumi Miyazaki. "The physiological effects of Shinrin-yoku (taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing): evidence from field experiments in 24 forests across Japan." Environ Health Prev Med. 2010 Jan; 15(1): 18–26. Published online 2009 May 2. doi: 10.1007/s12199-009-0086-9 PMCID: PMC2793346

Miyazaki Y, Lee J, Park BJ, Tsunetsugu Y, Matsunaga K. "Preventive medical effects of nature therapy" Nihon Eiseigaku Zasshi. 2011 Sep;66(4):651-6.

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