Diane Dreher
Source: Diane Dreher

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.

  1. Studies have shown that interacting with nature relieves stress and restores our ability to concentrate (Berman, Jonides, & Kaplan, 2008). In fact, research on the practice of shinrin-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 hippocampus (Arnsten, 2009; Hajszan, et al., 2009; Numan, 1978; Pruessner,et al., 2005 ), this reduction in cortisol could help keep our brains healthier.
  2. 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 ).
  3. 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 (Simons, 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.

References

Arnsten, A. F. T. (2009). Stress signaling pathways that impair prefrontal cortex structure and function. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 10, 410-422.

Berman, M. G., Jonides, J. & Kaplan, S. (2008). The cognitive benefits of interacting with nature. Psychological Science, 19, 1207-1212.

Hajszan, T., Dow, A., Warner-Schmidt, J. L., Szigeti-Buck, K., Sallam, N. L., Parducz, et al. (2009). Remodeling of hippocampal spine synapses in the rat learned helplessness model of depression. Biological Psychiatry, 65, 392-400.

Mayer, F.S., Frantz, C. M. P., Bruehlman-Senecal, E., & Doliver, K. (2009). Why is nature beneficial? The role of connectedness in nature. Environment and Behavior, 41, 607-643.

Numan, R. (1978). Cortical-limbic mechanisms and response control: A theoretical review. Physiological Psychology, 6, 445-470.

Pruessner, J. C., Baldwin, M. W., Dedovic, K., Renwick, R., Mahani, N. K., Lord, C., Meaney, M., & Lupien, S. (2005). Self-esteem, locus of control, hippocampal volume, and cortisol regulation in young and old adulthood. Neuroimage, 28, 815-826.

Park, B.J., Tsunetsugu, Y., Kasetani, T., Kagawa, T., & Miyazaki, Y. (2010). The physiological effects of shinrin-yoku (taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing): Evidence from field experiments in 24 forests across Japan. Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine, 15, 18-26.

Penedo, F. J., & Dahn, J. R. (2005). Exercise and well-being: a review of mental and physical health benefits associated with physical activity. Current Opinion in Psychiatry, 18, 189–193.

Simons, L. A., Simons, J., McCallum, J., & Friedlander, Y. (2006). Lifestyle factors and risk of dementia: Dubbo study of the elderly. Medical Journal of Australia, 184, 68-70.

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Diane Dreher is a best-selling author, positive psychology coach, and professor at Santa Clara University. Her latest book is Your Personal Renaissance: 12 Steps to Finding Your Life’s True Calling.

Visit her web site at www.dianedreher.com

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