Spending time in forests, hiking in mountains, and just being outside can lead to significant health benefits. Studies have shown that walking in the woods can improve blood pressure, boost mental health, and decrease cancer risk. So go spend some time “forest-bathing” to improve your health.
Many people spend workdays indoors under fluorescent lights and in front of computers, then return home to bask in the glow of television screens.
But research suggests it’s important to make time to get outdoors as well, since doing so is beneficial — maybe essential — for human health. Psychologists and health researchers are finding more and more science-backed reasons we should go outside and enjoy the natural world.
In her book, “The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative,” journalist Florence Williams writes that she started investigating the health benefits of nature after moving from the mountainous terrain of Boulder, Colorado, to what she describes as “the anti-Arcadia that is the nation’s capital”: Washington, DC.
“I felt disoriented, overwhelmed, depressed,” she wrote. “My mind had trouble focusing. I couldn’t finish thoughts. I couldn’t make decisions and I wasn’t keen to get out of bed.”
We don’t all need to move to beautiful places like Boulder — there are good reasons for many of us to live in bigger cities.
But humans do need to spend time in natural environments if they want to improve their physical and mental health. That could mean taking advantage of hiking trails near your home, playing in the snow, swimming in the ocean, or just spending time every week in a local park.
Here are 12 reasons why it’s so important.
Walking in nature could improve your short-term memory. Flickr / Carlos Andrés Reyes
Several studies show that nature walks have memory-promoting effects that other walks don’t.
In one study, University of Michigan students were given a brief memory test, then divided into two groups. One group took a walk around an arboretum, and the other took a walk down a city street. When the participants returned and did the test again, those who had walked among trees did almost 20% percent better than they had first time. The people who had taken in city sights instead did not consistently improve.
A similar study on depressed individuals found that walks in nature boosted working memory much more than walks in urban environments.
Being outdoors has a demonstrated de-stressing effect. Shutterstock/solarsven
Something about being outside changes the physical expression of stress in the body.
One study found that students sent into the forest for two nights had lower levels of cortisol — a hormone often used as a marker for stress — than those who spent that time in a city.
In another study, researchers found a decrease in both the heart rates and levels of cortisol of participants who spent time in the forest compared to those in the city.
“Stressful states can be relieved by forest therapy,” the researchers concluded.
Spending time outside reduces inflammation. Aidan Jones/flickr
When inflammation goes into overdrive, it’s associated with a wide range of ills, including autoimmune disorders, inflammatory bowel disease, depression, and cancer. Spending time in nature may be one way to help keep that in check.
In one study, students who spent time in the forest had lower levels of inflammation than those who spent time in the city. In another, elderly patients who had been sent on a weeklong trip into the forest showed reduced signs of inflammation. There were some indications that the woodsy jaunt had a positive effect on those patients’ hypertension levels as well.
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