Jill Suttie: I’ve been an avid hiker my whole life. From the time I first strapped on a backpack and headed into the Sierra Nevada Mountains, I was hooked on the experience, loving the way being in nature cleared my mind and helped me to feel more grounded and peaceful.
Nature has a profound impact on our brains and our behavior.
But, even though I’ve always believed that hiking in nature had many psychological benefits, I’ve never had much science to back me up … until now, that is. Scientists are beginning to find evidence that being in nature has a profound impact on our brains and our behavior, helping us to reduce anxiety, brooding, and stress, and to increase our attention capacity, creativity, and ability to connect with other people.
“People have been discussing their profound experiences in nature for the last several hundred years—from Thoreau to John Muir to many other writers,” says researcher David Strayer, of the University of Utah. “Now we are seeing changes in the brain and changes in the body that suggest we are physically and mentally more healthy when we are interacting with nature.”
While he and other scientists may believe nature benefits our well-being, we live in a society where people spend more and more time indoors and online—especially children. Findings on how nature improves our brains bring added legitimacy to the call for preserving natural spaces—both urban and wild—and for spending more time in nature in order to lead healthier, happier, and more creative lives.
Here are some of the ways that science is showing how being in nature affects our brains and bodies.
1. Being in nature decreases stress
It’s clear that hiking—and any physical activity—can reduce stress and anxiety. But, there’s something about being in nature that may augment those impacts.
In one recent experiment conducted in Japan, participants were assigned to walk either in a forest or in an urban center (taking walks of equal length and difficulty) while having their heart rate variability, heart rate, and blood pressure measured. The participants also filled out questionnaires about their moods, stress levels, and other psychological measures.