That feeling of inner calm and peace you get when you walk through a forest or stare out at a lake aren’t just made up in your head. In fact, our biological reaction to nature has been well-documented. Don’t believe us? Read on for the scientific evidence that the great outdoors is the secret to relieving your stress.
Nature lowers our heart rate and stress levels
There’s a large body of evidence to suggest that being exposed to nature scenes—both in real life and through imagery—can have tangible relaxing effects. In 2013, Swedish research Matilda van den Bosch and her colleagues submitted study participants to a stressful task, then separated the group into three rooms. One room contained an immersive virtual reality experience depicting a forest scene and nature sounds, another room featured only the forest scene, while the final room had no visual or auditory stimulation. The heart rate and cortisol (stress hormone) levels of the group that experienced the immersive nature scene returned to normal much more quickly than the other sample groups.
Fresh air, even in small doses, can be a mood-booster
There is no question that elevating your heart rate can also elevate your mood. But it doesn’t take a 10-kilometre run to reap the rewards. A study published in 2019 by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health determined that 15 minutes of running or one hour of walking can significantly reduce the risk of major depression. A 2010 study at the University of Essex found that a mere five minutes spent exercising in nature each day was enough to improve both mood and self-esteem.
More sunlight means more sleep
Have you ever noticed that you sleep better after a day at the beach or an afternoon spent in the garden? Being exposed to natural light is thought to have a positive effect on our quality of sleep. Multiple studies—on a diversity of participants ranging from nursing home patients to office workers—have found a correlation between our exposure to sunlight (especially in the morning hours) and the quality of our sleep.
Nature sounds make our minds wander
Mind-wandering—that mental state where our attention quiets and our brain’s relax—has been associated with improved creativity and mood. Listening to nature sounds, according to a British study published in 2017, can help highly stressed-out minds start to unwind and wander.
The great outdoors reduces pain
Inflammation can be a good thing: it acts as our body’s defense against the threat of bacteria, illness, and injury. But when the process doesn’t function as it should, inflammation can lead to or exacerbate painful diseases and disorders such as Crohn’s disease and arthritis. The key to reducing inflammation may lie in the deep dark woods—Chinese researchers have found that individuals with hypertension (ranging in age from university students to the elderly) show lower levels of inflammation after spending time outdoors.
So the next time you’re in need of unwinding, skip the couch and get outside!
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