Scientists have long recognized the benefits of going for a walk outside to improve mental health. But until recently, they were unaware of the reason.
A recent study discovered that a 60-minute walk in the great outdoors causes a decrease in stress-related markers in the brain, providing some of the first causal evidence for the positive effects of walking on mental health. The study was published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.
Researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Human Development’s Lise Meitner Group for Environmental Neuroscience recruited 63 volunteers and gave them the option of going on a walk in a forest or an urban setting to learn more about the connection.
Before and after the walks, MRI scans were used to record brain activity, seeking for signs of stress via activity in the amygdala. The amygdala has previously been demonstrated to be more active in urban residents than in rural ones, and given that it plays a significant role in the processing of emotions and fear, it serves as an important marker for stress.
After the nature walk, the participants’ amygdala activity decreased, which suggests that the stroll reduced their stress levels and may have helped to offset some of the detrimental effects of living in an urban area.
“The findings confirm the favorable relationship between nature and brain health that was previously believed to exist, but this is the first study to establish a causal relationship. According to Simone Kühn, director of the Lise Meitner Group for Environmental Neuroscience, “Interestingly, the brain activity after the urban walk in these regions stayed consistent and did not exhibit increases, which argues against a frequently held assumption that urban exposure produces increased stress.
Given that there is a clear correlation between urban living and mental health illnesses, the findings could have a significant impact on how we approach mental health concerns and even how future residential areas should be planned. If more mechanisms are discovered, access to green spaces may operate as a buffer against the stress that comes with living in cities and may even offer protection against risk factors for mental health issues.
Science seems to be yelling at you to get out into the environment, along with other research that suggest people who live in rural areas or have access to forests have healthier amygdala structures. Even a brief visit to a natural setting could help counteract the affects of living in the concrete jungle, and nations like Canada are already taking advantage of this by recommending National Park permits to those who suffer from depression or anxiety.
Therefore, it may be time to put on the old walking boots and venture outside, even if only to dash back inside when you realize it is too chilly.