Stop and smell the roses: the importance of spending time outdoors

Environment
August 5, 2022
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The restorative power of nature is not just some hippy-dippy concept. There is an overwhelming body of scientific literature that demonstrates the benefits of spending time outdoors.

When did you last take a walk through a forest? Listen to the songs of birds? Smell the fresh, dewy air after a rainfall? Feel the sun on your skin? I’m sure most of us can recount moments where we’ve experienced profound feelings of peace and tranquility in nature.

The healing benefits of spending time in nature is no novel concept. In Japan, Forest Bathing, or shinyin-yoku is viewed as an integral part of preventative health care and healing. Shinyin-yoku essentially means taking in the forest through our senses, or bathing in the forest atmosphere. The aim is to restore human health by way of connecting with nature through our five senses (vision, smell, hearing, touch, and taste) when we’re exposed to the forest environment. Numerous studies have shown that Forest Bathing has beneficial effects on our physical and mental health like enhancing immunity as well as reducing stress and symptoms of depression.

Nature helps ‘reset’ your mind

Mental fatigue has been all too familiar to many of us working from home during the pandemic. Maybe you’ve tried to ‘reset’ your mind by taking a nap or eating a snack or just lying down and scrolling through social media (check out how social media impacts us here). But what we don’t always realize is that most of us have access to a really effective (and free) solution for this: nature!

Spending time in nature can assist with mental fatigue and allow you to ‘reset’ your mind if you’re feeling stuck or overwhelmed. Research suggests that simple and brief interactions with nature can produce striking improvements in our cognitive functioning. For example, individuals that are exposed to natural settings demonstrate better attention performance after this exposure compared to those who are exposed to non-natural settings.  

Interacting with nature improves our mood

Research has also shown that walking in nature (compared to walking in a non-natural setting) effectively improves mood and wellbeing in individuals living with anxiety and/or depression. In one study, individuals with major depressive disorder exhibited improvements in mood and cognitive functioning after walking in nature. To take this a step further, even when these individuals were instructed to think about a painful negative experience during the walk, interacting with nature still produced improvements in their mood and functioning.  

What’s more, you don’t need to be outside for long to experience these benefits. Research suggests that just 5 minutes of contact with nature can significantly increase positive emotions and improve mood (for comparison, that’s a little bit longer than most YouTube videos and equivalent to around 10 TikTok’s).  

What’s the science behind nature’s magic?

Psychologists Stephen and Rachel Kaplan developed Attention Restoration Theory (ART) to explain the beneficial effects of nature on our cognitive functioning. The theory proposes that natural environments elicit from us a “soft” kind of fascination (e.g., being captivated by the birds, admiring the greenery, etc.) which is stimulating enough to gently engage us but not so much so that we need to concentrate our mind. This gives us room to reflect and think of other things as opposed to a “hard” fascination (from reading a book or watching TV) which is stimulating but still requires effort and concentration. Through effortlessly capturing our attention in this gentle way, nature provides the conditions that allow us to restore and renew our attentional capacity.  

Modern living in a culture thatn emphasizes work and productivity often results in attention fatigue. A big part of this is because we spend prolonged periods of time trying to focus our attention on relevant tasks while simultaneously inhibiting near-constant distractions (like incoming calls and notifications, background noises, your dog barking at the top of his lungs at your poor neighbour), and these processes take a lot of effort. When we go out into nature, we basically get a break from having to use these exhausting, effortful processes. By captivating our attention in an effortless way, being in nature gives us the opportunity to replenish these drained mental resources.  

The science is clear

The restorative power of nature is not just some hippy-dippy concept. There is an overwhelming body of scientific literature that demonstrates the benefits of spending time outdoors. Interacting with nature makes you feel better physically and mentally, helps you function better, be more productive, and can have protective effects on health. Now, stop reading your computer screen and take 5 minutes to walk outside!

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