Nature walks are among the best ways to stay in shape. Find out why a new study found that strolling in natural settings also has essential mental health benefits.
I’ve been doing a lot of walking lately. In fact, I go for a couple of walks every day now.
It started when I was getting my COVID booster at the local recreation centre. On the way out, I noticed the entrance to the indoor walking track I’d been hearing about.
I decided to see what it looked like. Once I saw it, I decided to try it out. One thing led to another and after a few more visits to the indoor track, I found the outdoor trail that went around the centre.
Walking Around Tree-Lined Streets in My Neighbourhood
The next thing I knew, I was taking walks around the tree-lined streets in my quiet residential neighbourhood. My smartwatch took note of this new activity and started sending unsolicited messages of encouragement.
Although I’m not fond of taking advice from machines, it turns out my watch had a point. The journal Molecular Psychiatry published a study this week about going for nature walks.
The participants in the study received functional magnetic resonance imaging fMRI scans before and after going for a one-hour walk. Half of them took a walk in a forested city park while the other half went to a busy shopping district.
Walks in Forested City Park versus Busy Shopping District
During both of the fMRI scans, the researchers asked the subjects to do a couple of tricky exercises. One involved looking at facial expressions and the other incorporated mental arithmetic problems.
These exercises provided a way of measuring stress levels. The study’s lead author, Professor Sonja Sudimac, is a postdoctoral fellow in the Lise Meitner Group for Environmental Neuroscience in Berlin.
Professor Sudimac explained to Medical News Today, “The results of our study show that after only one-hour walks in nature, activity in brain regions involved in stress processing decreases.” Participants found the challenging mental exercises less stressful after the nature walks.
Reduced Stress for Nature Walkers but Not Urban Walkers
The urban walkers didn’t fare as well. Although going for a city walk didn’t increase activity in stress-related parts of their brains, such as the amygdala region, it also didn’t lower it the way nature walks did.
For a while now, studies have shown that people who live close to nature have lower stress and mental illness than those who live in big cities. However, research like this poses a “chicken-and-egg” puzzle.
Does living with nature lower stress, or do people with naturally lower stress levels prefer to live in the country? As Professor Sudimac put it,“It was not possible to disentangle the hen-and-egg problem, namely whether nature actually caused the effects in the brain or whether the particular individuals chose to live in rural or urban regions.”
Nature Made the Difference, Not Personality
The results of this study seem consistent with the hypothesis that nature lowers stress and not the other way around. The only distinction between the two groups’ activities was the setting, suggesting that it was nature itself that made the difference and not variations in personality.
The team also points to the fact that the stress levels of the urban walkers neither went up nor down. The bustling city environment didn’t seem to have any “asphalt jungle” effect.
Professor Sudimac certainly interprets the team’s findings that way. “The walk in nature may have had a global beneficial effect on the amygdala by increasing its threshold for activation,” she explained.
Stress Reduction Could Be Result of Physical Exercise
Some of Professor Sudimac’s peers have suggested a slightly different explanation. It could be that the stress reduction is merely the result of the physical exercise.
If that’s the case, the reason the urban walkers showed no stress reduction was because the stress from the busy street offset the benefits of the exercise. That would support the asphalt jungle effect, suggesting nature had nothing to do with the results.
This seems to me like a distinction without a difference. Whether nature is calming or cities are agitating, my sense is that either way, nature trails make healthier routes for us than teeming thoroughfares.
Hopes Findings Lead to Changes in Urban Planning
Professor Sudimac hopes her team’s findings lead to changes in urban planning. She explains that nature walks “could serve as a preventive measure against developing mental health problems,” or looked at the other way, they might “buffer negative effects of urban environments on mental health.”
We humans have a habit of seeing ourselves as distinct from nature. We spend a lot of time thinking and talking about our relationship with the environment.
Thinking this way assumes we’re not part of nature. There’s a growing global realization that this assumption is flawed.
No Distinction Between Humanity and Natural World
Research like this study confirms there’s no distinction between humanity and the natural world. We’re part and parcel of nature and vice versa.
Professor Sudimac sees some urgency about changing this urban perspective. “More than half of the world population lives in cities and urbanization is rapidly increasing,” she pointed out. “It is crucial for urban dwellers to have a nearby park or a forest where they can recharge from the stressful urban environment.”
The researchers plan to build upon the study’s findings. They’re repeating their studies on nature walks versus urban strolls to see how they affect mothers with children.
Plan on Involving More Diverse Backgrounds in Future
They also plan on involving people from more diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds in future versions of the study. The scientists want to examine how attitudes toward nature vary among global cultures.
They also want to consider which of our sensory perceptions are behind the reduced amygdala activity. Is it colour, sound, aroma, taste, touch or particular combinations of them that trigger the relaxation response?
Professor Sudimac stressed the importance of these sensory studies. She’s planning more research in this area “in order to understand why nature restores from stress and, consequently, to make nature-based therapy more efficient.
We always have more to learn if we dare to know.
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