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Why Our Brains Need the Outdoors

Research highlights numerous benefits of "greenspace time" for mental health.

Key points

  • Outdoor time promotes psychological wellbeing and improves physical health, research suggests.
  • Nature-based therapies, like wilderness therapy, might promote recovery from psychiatric disorders including depression and ADHD.
  • Time in greenspace likely improves wellbeing through mechanisms including physical exercise and community building.
Claire Wilcox, personal photo
Source: Claire Wilcox, personal photo

This May, I went backpacking for six days along the Middle Fork of the Gila River, a healthy verdant paradise in the desert, filled with ponderosa, sycamore, and cottonwood of all sizes, and red cliffs rising hundreds of feet up into the sky. In water-shoes for most of the trip, we crossed the river almost two hundred times, becoming “at one” with schools of trout and thousands of busy little tadpoles. We even saw a bear and were one degree of separation from two wolves. We spoke little, saw few other hikers, and had no cell contact.

I came out of that trip feeling completely renewed. It seems like no matter what ails me—trouble sleeping, food cravings, indecision, excessive worry—trips like this, with time spent moving my body, breathing in the fresh air, and appreciating the wonder of the complex and balanced natural order of things, seem to always provide relief.

Nature Enhances Wellbeing

I’m not alone. Many of us depend on the healing power of nature for emotional restoration. Just ask anyone about their experiences over the last year-and-a-half who works in the outdoor industry, or who spends a lot of time in wilderness settings. They will all tell you that there has been a measurable uptick in trail usage around the country and more runs on and shortages of biking, hiking, and climbing equipment as people escape to the outdoors to try to rediscover sanity in these tumultuous times.

And research literature supports the beneficial effects of greenspace on psychological health, too. A recent COVID-era study in youth found that those with greater exposure to the outdoors reported greater wellbeing. Greenspace exposure is also associated with reductions in physiological markers of stress such as heart rate, blood pressure, and salivary cortisol.

Nature Promotes Recovery From Psychiatric Disorders

Although the studies are mostly preliminary, with small sample sizes, there is a growing body of evidence indicating that outdoor activity can promote recovery from a variety of psychiatric disorders, including attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, substance use disorders/addictions, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and insomnia.

Claire Wilcox, personal photo
Source: Claire Wilcox, personal photo

Wilderness therapy is an intervention growing in popularity across the globe. Originally developed for troubled adolescents and youth, it is now being offered to adult populations, where it is being utilized to treat anxiety, depression, and substance use disorders. People who have undergone wilderness therapy programs report great benefits, including reduced anxiety, greater ability to cope, improvements in relationships, and greater successes in making desired behavior changes.

How the Outdoors Helps Boost Well-Being

1. Physical Exercise. When we get outside, we move more, and the increase in movement is likely a key causal factor driving the benefits of outdoor time on our mental health. Numerous studies show that physical activity promotes positive mood, improved attention, reduced anxiety, recovery from addictions, and better sleep.

A fascinating study has shown how this might be happening at a neurochemical level. People with methamphetamine disorder who were randomized to a high-intensity exercise program experienced more normalization of their dopamine function in a part of their brains involved in controlling impulses. This would almost certainly help people stay clean, and suggests that exercise could be an important adjunct for addiction treatment.

Although people seem to enjoy exercise more in the outdoors, compared to inside, the jury is still out on whether outdoor compared to indoor physical exercise is any more effective for mood enhancement. This raises some questions about whether the outdoor element is all that important, and if the benefits we see of greenspace time are mostly attributable to the physical activity piece alone. However, additional research indicates there are other things going on, and that time in nature is important in and of itself.

2. Cognitive and Attentional Benefits. Beyond exercise, studies show that outdoor time might actually boost our mental capacities, which would help us make wiser decisions and change bad habits. A preliminary study showed that reductions in impulsivity resulted from exposure to outdoor images, and a growing body of work shows that greenspace time might improve cognition in Alzheimer’s.

3. Psychosocial Benefits and Community Building. Furthermore, because outdoor activities—like rock climbing, team sports, and even backpacking or hiking—often require us to work with, and rely on, other people, especially when challenges emerge, we build important relationship skills in the outdoors.

In wilderness therapy settings, in particular, community-building is a key component, and people report that the ability to feel empathy and trust others grows during their treatment and that effects last long after they return home. Relatedly, overcoming physical and psychological obstacles encountered in the outdoor setting increases self-efficacy, enhances mental resiliency, and, with greater athleticism, can improve body image, too. All of these can contribute to faster recovery from a variety of disorders.

4. Quiet Time, Brain Rest, and Spiritual Growth. Finally, nature gives us the gift of much-needed separation from excessive technology, urban noise and clutter, and stressful work and home environments. And this gifts us with perspective.

Adolescents in wilderness therapy programs report that backpacking provides relaxation through “simple physical movement that lacked intense or directed attention” which allows them to “let their thoughts wander” and “reevaluate what is important in life.” For many of us, time outside can enhance our sense that there is something greater than ourselves beyond the day-to-day sensory experiences; we may leave the outdoors with a greater sense of purpose. Spirituality is a source of comfort for many people, and higher levels are associated with greater wellbeing.

Let’s Get Outside

Although more studies are needed (especially randomized trials and research to establish the sustainability of the effects of outdoor therapies), those of us who appreciate wilderness should keep seeking respite in nature. Not everyone has a natural inclination towards outdoor environments, though, and physical disabilities may limit people's ability to take advantage of greenspace, so it is not the best option for everyone.

That said, there are lots of activity options to choose from—and in my personal opinion, it’s always worth a shot. Plus, getting outside is cheaper than therapy, and less likely than medications to cause side effects—if it works, it’s a win.

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