Gardening, hiking, bird watching, or just walking outdoors not only makes us feel better, it may keep our brains healthier.
We know the benefits of exercise from extensive research (Penedo & Dahn, 2005), but developing a close relationship with the natural world apparently offers something more: improving and sustaining our cognitive capacity.
Studies have shown that interacting with nature relieves stressand restores our ability to concentrate (Berman, Jonides, & Kaplan, 2008). In fact, research on the practice of shirring-yoku (or forest bathing) in Japan has found that people who simply sat in the forest for 15 minutes, then slowly walked around, taking in the site for another 15 minutes experienced a significant reduction in salivary cortisol (Park, et al., 2010 ). Since research has shown that cortisol adversely affects our brains, damaging the prefrontal cortex and hippo campus (Arnsten, 2009; Hajszan, et al., 2009; Numan, 1978; Pruessner,et al., 2005 ), this reduction in cortisol could help keep our brains healthier.
Just being out in nature helps us feel better and think better. Psychologists at Oberlin College randomly assigned 76 undergraduates to take a ten-minute walk in the woods beside a small river or in an urban setting near buildings and concrete parking lots, and then to spend five minutes taking in the scene. The students who walked in the woods experienced not only more positive emotions, but also demonstrated significantly greater attentional capacity and ability to reflect on life’s problems than those in the urban setting (Mayer et al., 2009 ).
Finally, being out in nature may keep our brains healthier in later life. A longitudinal study of over 2000 Australian men and women over sixty found that daily gardening was linked to a 36 percent reduction in the risk of developing dementia (Simon, et al., 2006).
If you’d like to begin experience these effects for yourself, try stepping outside. Look at the trees around you and the sky above. Pause for a few moments in your busy day to enjoy the healing and sustaining beauty of the natural world.