The benefits of spending time in nature

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Every year when winter turns to spring, the longer days and milder weather bring people out of their hibernation and back into the great outdoors.

And, not a moment too soon—for there are a host of cognitive and emotional benefits that come with being surrounded by nature.

Unlike urban areas, which are often overwhelming and require constant shifts of attention, nature is filled with relaxing stimuli that can be taken in over time. As a result, spending time in nature restores your ability to concentrate[1,2].

You may have heard that living near grass and tree-filled areas decreases your risk for a variety of physical ailments, including heart disease, asthma, migraines, and musculoskeletal issues[3]. This makes sense, because these environments provide fresh air and a place to exercise.

What you may not know is that living near green areas is also related to lower stress[4], and reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety[5].

Perhaps even more surprisingly, green areas appear to improve how people treat each other. Inner city neighborhoods with more green space have lower levels of crime, violence, and aggression[6].

But the benefits of nature don’t stop at green things. Soaking up sunlight can also have profound psychological effects.

Exposure to sunlight early in the morning kick-starts melatonin production, allowing you to fall asleep more easily at night and preventing insomnia. Morning sunlight also improves the symptoms of premenstrual syndrome and seasonal affective disorder[7].

These emotional benefits may have to do with the way sunlight boosts serotonin levels in the brain, which can improve your mood and make you feel calm and focused7.

To reap all these benefits, it’s important to get authentic sunlight—the light you get during a typical summer day outdoors can be up to a thousand times brighter than you would experience indoors, no matter how bright your sun lamp is[7]. (Of course, don’t overdo it, as too much sun exposure can increase your risk of skin cancer.)

So, if you need another reason to spend some time outside, just remember that it will improve your physical, cognitive, and emotional health.

References

1. Berman, M.G., Jonides, J., & Kaplan, S. (2008). The cognitive benefits of interacting with nature. Psychological Science, 19, 1207-1212.
2. Pearson, D.G., & Craig, T. (2014). The great outdoors? Exploring the mental health benefits of natural environments. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 1178.
3. Maas, J., Verheij, R.A., de Vries, S., Spreeuwenberg, P., Schellevis, F.G., & Groenewegen, P.P. (2009). Morbidity is related to a green living environment. Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, 63, 967–973.
4. Thompson, C.W., Roe, J., Aspinall, P., Mitchell, R., Clow, A., & Miller, D. (2012). More green space is linked to less stress in deprived communities: Evidence from salivary cortisol patterns. Landscape and Urban Planning, 105, 221-229.
5. Beyer, K.M.M., Kaltenbach, A., Szabo, A., Bogar, S., Nieto, F.J., & Malecki, K.M. (2014). Exposure to neighbourhood green space and mental health: Evidence from the survey of the health of Wisconsin. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 11, 3453–3472.
6. Kuo, F.E., & Sullivan, W.C. (2001). Aggression and violence in the inner city. Environment and Behavior, 33, 543–571.
7. Mead, M.N. (2008). Benefits of sunlight: A bright spot for human health. Environmental Health Perspectives, 116, A160-A167.