There may be no better way, research suggests, of lowering stress, improving feelings of well-being and preventing mental illness than spending time outdoors. And it doesn’t take much time to achieve those benefits, either. About 20 minutes spent in a park-like setting, surrounded by nature (grass, trees, birds, and such), is all you need to begin feeling better about your health and your self, and improve some important vital signs like blood pressure and heart rate. A recent study finds that exercising isn’t even necessary while soaking in the great outdoors in order to realize the health benefits. Jamie Ducharme explains:
For many people in the study, simply being in green space seemed to be enough to spark a change, says study co-author Hon Yuen, director of research in the occupational therapy department at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
“Some people may go to the park and just enjoy nature. It’s not that they have to be rigorous in terms of exercise,” Yuen says. “You relax and reduce stress, and then you feel more happy.”
Greenery in urban areas where children live, learn, and play has been shown to be important in promoting child physical and mental well-being. Writing in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), researchers drive that point home in a new study from Denmark:
Green space can provide mental health benefits and possibly lower risk of psychiatric disorders. This nation-wide study covering >900,000 people shows that children who grew up with the lowest levels of green space had up to 55% higher risk of developing a psychiatric disorder independent from effects of other known risk factors. Stronger association between cumulated green space and risk during childhood constitutes evidence that prolonged presence of green space is important.
Paul Biegler searches for the psychological and physical mechanisms responsible for increasing the risk of psychiatric problems in children — conditions which include anxiety and depression, eating disorders, and obsessive compulsive disorder — when green space is lacking:
A fast-pace lifestyle could make city dwellers more stressed, a well-known risk factor for mental illness. Four out of five cases of depression, for example, come after severe stress. The calming effect of parks and gardens and the space to exercise and socialise could act as stress busters.
The researchers also point to data showing a link between air pollution and mental illness, possibly from effects on brain development. “The role of green spaces as natural filters of environmental pollution,” they write, may be protective.
A third possibility is that close contact with nature can encourage a healthier microbiome – the billions of bacteria that live in and on you – and better immunity, both of which may lower risk for mental illness. Gut bacteria, for example, can make gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a chemical messenger active in the brain. Low levels of GABA have been linked to depression.
Last summer, we took a look at a new program from the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy “to get kids outdoors for the sake of improving child health.” That PediaBlog post began with three distinct and relevant quotes for our discussion today:
“There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature.”
“Time in nature is not leisure time; it’s an essential investment in our children’s health (and also, by the way, in our own).”
“Go outside and play!”
— Every mother everywhere
And the best part may be that playing outdoors is free! “Is that so bad?” my own mother might say.