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Health & Wellness

Why Getting into the Green Outdoors May Be Good for You

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We’re often told that the road to better health starts with taking that first step.

And the most beneficial step you can take may just be the one that leads outside your front door and toward nature, whether that’s a park, hiking trail, beach, or simply a tree-lined street.

A growing body of research points to the wide range of ways that spending time in nature may be good for our brains and our mood. One recent report looked at findings across 20 countries, including the United States, Britain, Spain, France, Germany, Australia, and Japan. After analyzing over 140 studies involving more than 290 million people, the researchers concluded that Mother Nature really does provide a health boost. Their findings suggest that exposure to green space may reduce the risk of diabetes, heart disease, premature death, stress, and high blood pressure.

Just how does nature boost well-being? The researchers have a couple of theories.

People living near, or spending time in nature, likely have more opportunities for physical activity and socializing. Plus, the study’s lead author noted that “exposure to a diverse variety of bacteria present in natural areas may also have benefits for the immune system and reduce inflammation.”

So when the weather is mild, you might want to consider hitting a green path instead of the treadmill or the city streets. Researchers at Stanford University compared the brain activity of people who’d walked for 90 minutes in either an area scattered with greenery or along a traffic-heavy four-lane roadway. They found that those who strolled in a natural setting had less activity in the prefrontal cortex, a brain region that’s active during repetitive thoughts that focus on negative emotions. “This finding is exciting because it demonstrates the impact of nature experience on an aspect of emotion regulation – something that may help explain how nature makes us feel better,” said the study’s lead author.

An effective “nature prescription” doesn’t need to be time consuming, according to Harvard Men's Health Watch. "Anything from 20 to 30 minutes, three days a week, to regular three-day weekends in the woods is helpful," said Jason Strauss, M.D., director of geriatric psychiatry at Harvard-affiliated Cambridge Health Alliance. "The point is to make your interactions a part of your normal lifestyle." Strauss added that it’s both the sounds and the sights of nature that calm us, lowering levels of the stress hormone cortisol. 

If you can’t make it outside, bringing nature inside may have similar benefits. British researchers used a MRI scanner to study brain activity in people as they listened to five-minute soundtracks of either natural or artificial environments. The result: those listening to nature sounds showed a decrease in the “fight or flight” reactions and an increase in the more mellow “rest and digest” reaction. Other research suggests that looking at images of nature has a similarly soothing effect.

Ready to explore some wide-open green spaces near you? FindYourPark.com, a collaboration between the National Park Foundation and the National Park Service, can help you connect with national parks in your state, or in states you plan to visit. Grab some water, sunscreen, a friend, neighbor, spouse or grandkid or two and experience the restorative benefits of nature.

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