For 99% of history, humans lived off the land. Not only did we use the land for basic survival, but the outdoors provided a space for enjoyment, community, and ritual. One study hypothesizes we are born with an innate love of nature as a part of our hunter-gatherer ancestry.
In the past few decades, a term called “green exercise” has captivated the brains of researchers looking at why movement outdoors tends to provide a greater sense of well-being, enhanced restoration in biochemical markers of recovery, and possibly increased disease prevention.
The Japanese have a term for this called Shinrin-yoku, which translates in English to “taking in the forest atmosphere” or “forest bathing.” You don’t have to get naked in the woods (although that might be fun) like the idea of forest bathing implies. Coined in 1982 by the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, forest bathing refers to the “process of soaking up the sights, smells, and sounds of a natural setting to promote physiological and psychological health.”
The good news is you don’t have to be an outdoorsman or live next to a national forest to reap the benefits of time spent in nature. I’ll highlight a few studies that have shown you can reap the benefits of time spent in nature in as little as five minutes.
Here are seven great reasons to get off the treadmill and find some green space for exercise. Not to mention outdoor activity is COVID-approved — no face mask required.
1. Improves Sleep
Research has long proven how daily exercise improves sleep — regardless of whether it’s indoors or out. However, scientists recently set out to determine if a relationship exists between exposure to green space and better sleep quality.
A meta-analysis published in March 2020 in Environmental Research reviewed data from thirteen eligible studies to examine the impact of green space exposure on sleep quality and quantity. Eleven of the 13 studies showed a strong association between both — meaning time spent in nature seems to improve sleep.
Another study titled Does Sleep Grow on Treesfound subjects had 13% lower odds of developing insufficient sleep when they lived within 1.6km of an area with 30% or more landcover from a tree canopy than people in areas with less than 10%. These results were consistent after considering age, sex, education, work status, marital status, and household income.
These are observational studies, so we can’t conclude cause and effect. However, if you’re experiencing insomnia or other sleep issues, try visiting your local park. Fresh air, sunlight, and a little exercise could leave you sleeping soundly.
2. Enhances Creativity
A study out of Stanford University found a walk (regardless of whether it’s inside or out) can boost a person’s creativity by up to 60%. They argue many great thinkers like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg are (or were) well-known for taking walking meetings.
One study followed backpackers on a four-day backpacking trip and found they could solve significantly more puzzles than a control group, not on the trip —in fact, 47% more. According to Psychological Science, the impact of nature on attention restoration accounted for improved scores on cognitive tests for the study participants.
It appears adding nature to your walk gives you the added benefit of peace and quiet, plus the restorative effect of exposure to green space. Also, depending on where you are, you might not have great wifi access. Without the constant interruption of your cell phone or email notifications, your brain is free to ponder questions or problems you’re trying to solve.
3. Reduces Anxiety and Depression
Another study examined the psychological benefits of the effects of the Japanese concept of shinrin-yoku on 498 volunteers. The study revealed that forest environments are advantageous with respect to acute emotions, especially among those experiencing chronic stress.
The authors conclude,
Accordingly, shinrin-yoku may be employed as a stress reduction method, and forest environments can be viewed as therapeutic landscapes. Therefore, customary shinrin-yoku may help to decrease the risk of psychosocial stress-related diseases, and evaluation of the long-term effects of shinrin-yoku is warranted.
To provide even more evidence, an additional meta-analysis of 10 studies involving more than 1,200 participants set out to determine just how much acute exposure to green exercise was required to improve self-esteem and mood (indicators of mental health).
They found that green exercise improves people’s mood and self-esteem, with the biggest effects coming in just five minutes. While every green environment studied improved participants’ mood and self-esteem, water’s presence seemed especially beneficial. Perhaps you can find a lake or a small body of water to walk beside.
4. Improves Memory
Researchers at the University of Michigan found memory performance and attention spans improved by 20% after people spent an hour interacting with nature. The good news is it didn’t matter what time of year; taking a walk in the park or even looking at nature pictures while walking induced cognitive improvements.
The researchers believe the findings could have a broader impact on helping people suffering from mental fatigue. Marc Berman, one of the study’s authors, states,
Interacting with nature can have similar effects as meditating. People don’t have to enjoy the walk to get the benefits. We found the same benefits when it was 80 degrees and sunny over the summer as when the temperatures dropped to 25 degrees in January. The only difference was that participants enjoyed the walks more in the spring and summer than in the dead of winter.
Next time you’re studying a subject or trying to remember something specific, try walking in a park to cement the memory in your brain.
5. Lowers Blood Pressure
Research out of the University of East Anglia revealed a significant association between the amount of time a person spent in nature and the lower the prevalence of depression and high blood pressure. They also found populations with higher levels of greenspace exposure were more likely to report good overall health — according to global data involving more than 290 million people.
The authors speculate,
People living near greenspace likely have more opportunities for physical activity and socialising. Meanwhile, exposure to a diverse variety of bacteria present in natural areas may also have benefits for the immune system and reduce inflammation.
Perhaps the opportunity to get outdoors inspires people to exercise, which has a positive effect on weight and blood pressure. Regardless of the reasons why, it pays to live near green space, including urban parks.
6. Enhances Physical Restoration
This study examined the effects of heart rate variability (HRV) on participants who took a 17-minute walk in an urban green space during lunchtime vs. those who walked in what they call a “built” environment — meaning the subjects walked between buildings. HRV measures the time between heartbeats. Greater variability between beats suggests the body is recovering from stress well.
Volunteers served as their own control, meaning participants drew from an envelope which walk to take first (built or green) and then switched environments for the next walk. This eliminated between-subject variability which could confound the statistical analysis.
They found greater nighttime vagal activity and increased HRV. A higher vagal tone means your body can relax faster after stress. The effects lasted long after the initial walk.
7. Reduced Cancer Risk
Research connecting forest bathing and reduced cancer risk is still in its infancy, but early preliminary studies are promising. Preliminary studies are an initial exploration of issues and provide areas where further exploration is needed.
One such study found that a trip to the forest can enhance the expression of anti-cancer proteins. Business Insider explains studies in Japan, where “shinrin-yoku” or “forest-bathing” is considered a form of preventative medicine, have also found that areas with greater forest coverage have lower mortality rates from a wide variety of cancers.
The benefits of spending time in the great outdoors are undisputed when you look at the research. What’s exciting is that you don’t have to be an experienced outdoor enthusiast to reap the rewards. In fact, your mind and body start to benefit after just five minutes. You also don’t have to live far outside the city. Researchers found improvements after walking in an urban park or even after exposure to pictures of a natural setting.
When looking at the healthiest counties in America, data often cite proximity to walking trails and green space. It may be that living in these places naturally encourages more exercise or that the experience of spending time in nature creates an innate desire to get outside more often.
Regardless, head out to your closest park. Your mind and body will thank you!