Updated: Apr 5, 2021
“If you are constantly on a device or in front of a screen, you’re missing out on something that’s pretty spectacular: the real world.” -David Strayer
“Go Outside!” If you grew up in the United States anytime prior to 1980, you probably heard your parents direct this phrase at you countless times. It turns out that a mounting body of scientific evidence supports that going outside makes us healthier, happier and more creative.
Kids used to come home after school, go run around the neighborhood, and meet up with some friends. I used to do that. Now kids are totally scheduled, and most of the little outside time they do get is supervised by adults in some organized sporting activity. They do not get enough free exploration of nature that behavioral psychologists think children and teens need in order to develop confidence, problem-solving, and social skills.
“Let Nature be your teacher.” -William Wordsworth
Today we live in a society where most people, especially young people, spend more and more time indoors and online. While there are some great things that our screens enable us to do, we are now spending more time than is optimum on our screens, and we would all benefit from spending more time outside. Our brains are not wired for the continual information bombardment that our screens provide us, and it overwhelms our prefrontal cortex and eventually leads to mental fatigue and burnout. The ability of time spent outside in nature to restore our ability to focus deeply on cognitive challenges and thus improve our test-taking and interpersonal abilities is supported by an onslaught of research papers being released in the psychological field. Here’s one that identified the phenomenon over a decade ago.
“Most people spend less time outside than prisoners.” -J.R. Rim
Immerse yourself in nature. Nature makes us happier. This isn’t news. The Ancients wrote about it. Frederick Law Olmsted designed Central Park in New York City to provide access to nature for all the city's residents. Public health officials in Finland now recommend, based upon evidence, that citizens get 5 hours a month in the woods, minimum, in order to stave off depression. They found that people need this time in order to preserve their mental health.
This is how 15 minutes in a forest affects you. The sounds of birds, the scent of trees and even the soil, the fresh, clean air — these things give us a sense of comfort. They ease our stress and worry, help us to relax and to think more clearly. It energizes and rejuvenates us. The Japanese call it Shinrin Yoku, which means “Forest Bathing”. Quite simply, it’s going for a walk and exploring nature, and the health benefits are demonstrable.
Our sensory system developed in the natural world and when we’re in those spaces, our brains become relaxed because these are things that we were designed to look at, hear and to smell. It’s not surprising that experimental data shows that walking in nature lowers our heart rates, blood pressure, and cortisol levels.
Time outside increases your exposure to sunlight that helps your body create Vitamin D which improves your self-esteem and helps you more efficiently absorb calcium and phosphorus, strengthening your bones. Sunlight also energizes special cells in your immune system called T cells that help fight infections and cancer. While we don’t yet know the specific biochemical basis, spending time outdoors helps people sleep better.
Recent studies out of Finland and Japan yielded results that walking in natural spaces is much more effective at reducing stress and improving mental well-being than walking in urban centers. Another study performed by Stanford University found that walking in nature makes us less stressed, anxious, frustrated, angry, resentful, and depressed, and more positive in our outlook, than an equivalent time spent walking in an urban setting.
A group of curious scientists in Edinburgh, Scotland recently monitored the brains of people continuously using a mobile electroencephalogram (EEG) device while they walked through urban areas and green spaces so they could evaluate their EEG readings to determine why people benefit so much from time in nature. It turns out that while in nature people rest their attention networks and by instead activating what is known as the Brain Default Network, areas of the brain that align with curiosity, creativity, and joy. In particular, areas of our brain known to be creative centers, which likely came into existence to improve our odds of survival throughout most of human history, show high levels of activity.
Because spending time in nature increases our ability to focus deeply while simultaneously enhancing our creativity and problem-solving capability, teachers and employers can utilize outdoor activities to increase the performance of students and employees. Our recommendation: Go outside for a while and be creative about how we can utilize the outdoors to our advantage.
“Earth and sky, woods and fields, lakes and rivers, the mountain and the sea, are excellent schoolmasters, and teach of us more than we can ever learn from books.” -John Lubbock
If you have a well-developed sense of humor, you may enjoy watching: Nature Rx
WARNING: This video implies strong language that may be offensive to some viewers.