4 Ways Going Outside Can Improve Your Mental Health, According to Research
The best part? You don't need a 2-hour hike to reap the benefits!
I've never considered myself much of an outdoorsy type—until spring 2020 hit. Then, like most Americans, I found my home a little...claustrophobic. My small back patio, that I once considered an unkempt project, started to seem like an exotic location change where I worked a few hours each day.
Initially, I did it for the scenery change and to escape my kids' online learning, but it slowly became part of my daily routine for the boost it gave my mood and productivity. And when I didn't venture out, I seemed to have a less-rosy outlook and significantly less patience with my kids.
I know vitamin D likely played a role, but the changes I noticed were so pronounced that I felt like there had to be other factors at play. It turns out my inclination was right, because spending time in nature is associated with improved health outcomes related to diabetes, heart disease, cancer, respiratory issues, migraines, anxiety, depression, ADD/ADHD and even memory. In fact, while it's not fully understood, researchers and health professionals acknowledge a definite positive connection between exposure to nature or green space and our mental health.
What's even better is that you don't have to go on a 2-hour hike—or even break a sweat—to reap nature's psychological perks. You can score immediate psychological benefits just being outside among trees and green space for five minutes or more. Here are four ways that time outside can boost your thinking and mood.
4 Ways Being Outside Can Boost Your Mental Health
1. It Improves Work and School Performance
Have trouble focusing on the task at hand? Research suggests that typical indoor work and school environments negatively affect the brain's ability to filter important stimuli from less-important ones. The effect is that many people have trouble focusing and remembering things in these types of environments.
However, spending time outside in a green space before starting on tasks appears to help by improving working memory and our ability to concentrate and focus. Can't get outside? Research suggests there are benefits from sitting where you can see trees and green space out a window while working.
2. It Regulates Sleep
A lack of natural light triggers melatonin production. This is why you may get drowsy mid-afternoon when you've spent the day inside. Going outside in the daylight, even if it's overcast, suppresses melatonin production. This is because sunlight regulates circadian rhythms to align with our body's internal clock. The result is that going outside for a few minutes helps to keep you awake and alert during the day, which makes it easier to go to sleep at night and to get better sleep.
3. It Boosts Mood and Eases Depression and Anxiety
Exposure to natural light stimulates the body's production of vitamin D and serotonin, both of which play key roles in boosting moods. These are key reasons why even small amounts of time spent outside are associated with an increase sense of overall wellbeing and a decrease in anxiety and depression.
Green space also appears to slow "rumination," the process in which individuals with depression or anxiety may replay negative instances over and over making the depression and anxiety worse and harder to recover from.
4. It Instantly Lowers Stress
Going outside is also a pretty immediate stress reliever. According to a 2019 study, salivary cortisol levels significantly decreased when time was spent in nature with the greatest impact coming from spending 20 to 30 minutes outside. Exposure to green space appears to increase parasympathetic nervous activity, which is the system that relaxes or "undoes" the effects from stress caused by the sympathetic nervous system. The result is in a sense of calmness, along with lower heart rate and blood pressure.
Other benefits include a lower risk of burnout at work, improved healing and recovery following surgery and overall decrease in risk of death.
How to Spend More Time Outside
Not sure how to get started, or don't have regular access to a park or green space? Here are some ways to reap nature's psychological benefits.
- Spend 10-15 minutes in the morning meditating outdoors or take your pup on a walk around the block.
- Take regular activities—like working on your laptop or reading—outside. If you don't have a mobile job, take your lunch break outside or go on a lunchtime walk.
- Try an outdoor workout class.
- Have a picnic lunch or dinner.
- Take up gardening (which also boasts plenty of mental and physical health benefits)
- Move your desk by a window where you can see greenery.
- Invest in a few indoor plants, as some research suggests the color green has a calming effect on the mind. (Bonus: These ones can actually help clean the air in your home!)
Carolyn Williams, PhD, RD, is author to the new cookbook, Meals That Heal: 100 Everyday Anti-Inflammatory Recipes in 30 Minutes or Less, and a culinary nutrition expert known for ability to simplify food and nutrition information. She received a 2017 James Beard Journalism award. You can follow her on Instagram @realfoodreallife_rd or on carolynwilliamsrd.com.