Ten Scientific Reasons to Get Outdoors

Recently while working on a post entitled “Want a Better Brain? Take It Camping!” I came across some interesting research that I want to share here. These are ten good scientific reasons to get outdoors to promote better mental health.

Scout Camps are a great place to get outdoors with your family or a good place to spend time as a volunteer, but did you know that you can use the camps for teens and young adults in therapy from ages 131/2 to 21. Imagine
 team building on this ropes course all afternoon
 and then sitting around the campfire in a healing group session in the evening.


Being in nature leads to both “positive short and long-term health outcomes” and exercise in green outdoor environments does even more. “The presence of water generated greater effects. Both men and women had similar improvements in self-esteem after green exercise, though men showed a difference for mood. Age groups: for self-esteem, the greatest change was in the youngest, …The mentally ill had one of the greatest self-esteem improvements. “            Barton and Pretty, What is the Best Dose of Nature and Green Exercise for Improving Mental Health? A Multi-Study Analysis. Environmental Science and Technology, 2010 pp 3947-3955. 

Young girls enjoying time around the campfire


Dr. Gregory Plotnikoff, states, “Simply replenishing vitamin D can have profoundly positive effects: …reduced pain, increased energy, and better sense of well-being,” Vitamin D, can come from foods like salmon and fortified milk, but “we get more than 90 percent of our vitamin D from casual exposure to sunlight.” Just 10 to 15 minutes a day is enough sunlight to help our bodies make all the vitamin D we need. Gregory A. Plotnikoff, MD,“Prevalence of severe hypovitaminosis D in patients with persistent, nonspecific musculoskeletal pain,” Mayo Clinic Proceedings, 2003 Dec, pp.1463-70.

However, Health.com reports that low levels of vitamin D “have been associated with more severe asthma, colds, seasonal affective disorder, and even chronic pain or fibromyalgia.” They say studies show about half of all adults and 70% of children don’t get enough direct sunlight and that 93% of pain patients had low levels of vitamin D, the “sunshine vitamin.”


Forest bathing, as it is known in Japan, suggests taking in the forest atmosphere to relieve stress and improve health. In experiments made across Japan. “forest settings were associated with lower levels of cortisol, slower heart rates, lower blood pressure, greater activity of parasympathetic nerves that promote relaxation, and … participants reported significantly less depression and hostility and felt significantly more lively. And the greater the level of stress individuals experienced, the greater the positive effects of forest bathing. Researchers concluded that forests are ‘therapeutic landscapes'” and that forest bathing may decrease the risk of stress-related diseases.” Forest Therapy Association of the Americas


Other benefits of forest bathing include breathing “in phytoncides, airborne chemicals that plants give off to protect themselves from insects. Phytoncides have antibacterial and antifungal qualities which help plants fight disease. When people breathe in these chemicals, our bodies respond by increasing the number and activity of a type of white blood cell called natural killer cells …These cells kill tumor- and virus-infected cells in our bodies.”    Lee, J., Park, B.-J., Tsunetsugu, Y.,Ohra, T., Kagawa, T., Miyazaki, Y.; Effect of forest bathing on physiological and psychological responses in young Japanese male subjects. Public Health., 201, pp 93-100


Need an energy boost? According to Richard Ryan, from the University of Rochester, you could skip the caffeine “and sit outside instead. Nature is fuel for the soul.” He suggests a “better way to get energized is to connect with nature.” Time spent in nature is one of the pathways to better health. “We have a natural connection with living things…Nature is something within which we flourish, so having it be more a part of our lives is critical.”  Especially, he says, when we work and live in man made environments. Richard Ryan, “Vitalizing effects of being outdoors and in nature,” Journal of Environmental Psychology, Volume 30, Issue 2, 2010, pp.159-168.


“When you exercise outdoors, your mind is aware of the changing terrain. Whether you use the hills, the sand on a beach, or a winding path, your mind has to focus differently than it would on a flat gym floor,” says Tina Vindum, a faculty member of the American Council on Exercise. One study suggests that exercise outdoors benefits mental well-being more than the same type of exercise inside.  Coon, Boddy, Sein, Whear, Barton, and Depledge; “Does Participating in Physical Activity in Outdoor Natural Environments Have a Greater Effect on Physical and Mental Wellbeing than Physical Activity Indoors?” Environmental Science & Technology, 2011,  pp 1761–1772


One study comparing urban and natural environments showed “restorative effects on cognitive function.” They reported that since nature, “is filled with intriguing stimuli” it quite naturally “grabs attention in a bottom-up fashion, allowing top-down directed-attention abilities a chance to replenish.” They found that urban environments filled with dramatic stimulation make them less restorative. Their experiments show that “walking in nature or viewing pictures of nature can improve directed-attention abilities, …thus validating attention restoration theory.” Berman, M. G., Jonides, J., Kaplan, Stephen. (2008). The Cognitive Benefits of Interacting With Nature, Psychological Science. 19: 1207-1212.


Short winter days and lower levels of light can bring on Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD. This seasonal reoccurring condition is marked by by feeling of sadness, exhaustion, and symptoms of anxiety, exhaustion. But doctors at the Mayo Clinic suggest: “Take a long walk, eat lunch at a nearby park, or simply sit on a bench and soak up the sun. Even on cold or cloudy days, outdoor light can help — especially if you spend some time outside within two hours of getting up in the morning.”


Multiple studies show that hospital patients benefit from gardens and natural landscapes. “Negative mood states—including tension, anger, fatigue, confusion, and anxiety—were significantly reduced when viewing the garden compared with the city scenes. Differences in the physiological and psychological responses to the two different landscapes were detected between male and female groups.” Research showed for men this was especially true and often lowered their blood pressures. Juyoung Lee, “Experimental Study on the Health Benefits of Garden Landscape,” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 2017 Jul; 14 (7): 829.


If you find that you cannot concentrate at work or anywhere for that matter, just step outside for a stroll in a park. Research shows that walking in nature helps restore our ability to concentrate. Both children with attention-deficit/ hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and adults that suffer from a phenomenon called Directed Attention Fatigue, benefit from green space. In fact, other researchers concluded that a 20-minute walk in a city park (not along a city street) worked as well as Ritalin in children with ADHD.

When we spend time in nature, listening to streams and birds, looking at plants and anything else natural we find, it gives the cognitive part of “our brain a break, allowing us to focus better and renew our ability to be patient.”

In all, nature can help improve our brains, shrug off the pressures of daily life to think about family, relationships, and giving back. Things that will promote better mental health for sure.

How has spending time outside changed your life?

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