Three Reasons to Take a Walk in the Woods for Brain Health
Nature lovers have long extolled the calming effect nature has on our bodies and minds. And many of us have experienced these effects first hand. As science studies the links between nature and our health, new therapies and methodologies are born.
Nature therapy is an expanding area of medicine, where researchers focus on discovering and interpreting the effects of spending time in a forest has on human health. Studies show a broad range of results, including prevention benefits as well as improving overall health. And there are numerous benefits for the brain. Here are three reasons why making time to walk in nature can improve your brain health.
There is an entire area of medicine currently dedicated to discovering and interpreting the effects on human health of spending time in the forest. This is called Forest Medicine and it is based on a style of therapy, practiced originally by the Japanese called Shinrin-Yoku, or commonly known as forest bathing. This is a practice of slowly walking in a forest, sometimes guided by a therapist trained in the healing procedures while interacting with the natural environs of the forest. Forest bathing is somewhat different to meditating in a forest or going for a hike and involves being more mindful of being in nature. Studies show very promising healing and preventative outcomes from the therapies including many benefits to the brain.
Lowers our stress hormones
One of the benefits of spending time in natural environments has is lowering the stress hormones in our brain. When we’re stressed our brain releases adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol. High levels of these hormones for excessive periods of time damages our ability to focus, our attention span, and our problem-solving skills. They raise our blood pressure, elevate our heart rate, inhibit digestion, and suppress the immune response.
When we walk in nature it allows our brain to rest, setting our hormones back to baseline levels. This reset means our body functions return to normal and the change in thinking primes our brain to better learn and retain memory when we return to work. Additionally, spending time in nature also gives our brain added resilience, helping us maintain overall lower stress hormone levels for extended periods of time.
Increases activity in our parasympathetic nervous system
Once our stress hormones lower, our parasympathetic nervous system can activate. This system is known as the rest and digest part of our nervous system. It’s the opposite of our fight or flight response and is necessary in fighting the elevated stress and anxiety prolonged stress induces on our body and brain.
When activated, our parasympathetic nervous system produces a sense of calm and relaxation. The long term benefits include strengthening our immune system, reducing our blood pressure, and elevating our mood. Spending time in nature can help activate this system, helping us regulate our stress and return our system to a sustained state of calm.
Increases cognitive function
Studies continue to demonstrate multiple cognitive benefits after spending time in nature. After spending fifty minutes walking in natural environments, individuals showed improved memory performance, attention span, focus, and problem-solving skills. Time in nature has also demonstrated significant impact on our mood, including reducing depression, anxiety, and anger. It also can improve fatigue.
One reason is spending time in natural environments changes our thinking processes. When we’re in urban environments, we tend to run in top-down cognition, where we notice big stimuli first. We tend not to notice the little details, as they tend to not be as important. For example, noticing a piece of trash isn’t necessary but not walking into traffic is. When we’re in nature, our brain changes to bottom-up processing, where the small details begin to matter more. This change in thinking is healthy for our brain and improves overall cognition.
In our busy lives, it can sometimes be difficult to plan spending significant time in nature. However, spending two hours a week in a natural environment has shown marked improvement in health conditions and mental well-being. While adding more greenery to our home and office environments can help, the best results come from immersing ourselves in the outdoors.