Okay, so anyone familiar with hiking already knew it – but it has now been proven scientifically that outdoor walks improve mental health.
British and American scientists have published new research showing that group nature walks help us combat stress while boosting mental well-being.
Researchers from the University of Michigan and Edge Hill University in England evaluated 1,991 participants in England’s Walking for Health program, which hosts nearly 3,000 walks per week for more than 70,000 regular participants. They found that the nature walks were associated with significantly less depression in addition to mitigating the negative effects of stressful life events and perceived stress. The findings were published in the September issue of Ecopsychology.
“We observed behaviors of a large group, in which some chose to walk and some chose not to, instead of us telling them what to do,” she said. “After 13 weeks, those who walked at least once a week experienced positive emotions and less stress.”
Warber and co-author Kate Irvine, senior researcher of the Social, Economic, and Geographical Sciences Research Group at the James Hutton Institute, in Aberdeen, UK, recommend walking outside in nature at least three times a week to experience benefits. Short, frequent jaunts are more beneficial than long, occasional walks.
“Stress isn’t ever going to go away, so it is important to have a way to cope with it,” said Warber. “Walking in nature is a coping mechanism—the benefits aren’t just physical.”
In another study, published this week in PNAS, the research team wanted to see if they could understand what the mechanisms for these positive effects might be. The study by Gregory Bratman, a PhD candidate in environmental science at Stanford University, focuses specifically on what psychologists call “rumination,” which has been shown to predict depressive episodes.
The process involved volunteers with no history of mental illness to take a 90-minute walk in an either a large park nearby or in an urban setting, completing a rumination questionnaire and a brain scan before and afterwards.
The results showed that those who went on the nature walk had reductions in both self-reported rumination and in the profusion of blood flow to the subgenual prefontal cortex. The urban walkers, however, no significant changes.
“Urbanization is increasing at an unprecedented rate, and we’re also seeing an uptick in the rates of anxiety disorders and depression in cities,” Bratman said. “We want to figure out how do we bring more nature to people.”
So even if you can’t go hiking as often as you would like, go for a walk in the park – it really does make a difference!