Be honest – you probably don’t spend all that much time outside, right? Well, you’re not alone; a 2008 study by found that Americans were spending much less time enjoying nature than in previous decades. Published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the report noted that the amount of time Americans spent outdoors had fallen 18 to 25 percent, depending on the activity in question. If you find yourself avoiding the outdoors, there is plenty of reason to adjust your lifestyle; according to research, exposure to nature’s elements can have a positive effect on human health.
Feeling More Alive
There’s a reason why so many people doze off while watching TV – occasionally, we tend to get tired and sleepy while watching our favorite programs. On the other hand, you might have felt a renewed sense of vigor while walking through the woods. While this might seem to be little more than a coincidence, some research does support the idea that nature has a healthy influence on energy levels.
One such report appeared in the June 2010 issue of the Journal of Environmental Psychology. Authored by an international team of researchers, this study observed a total of 537 college students as they took part in multiple experiments. For example, one experiment required students to spend 15 minutes either walking through an indoor hallway or alongside a river.
In a separate test, students were shown images of various buildings and outdoor environments. The study also asked students to picture themselves in certain scenarios; students were told to imagine being both active and inactive in various locations, and were further told to envision themselves as being alone and with other individuals.
For the final two experiments that concluded the study, each student was asked to track the amount of time they spent outdoors, along with how often they were exposed to natural environments. The term “natural environment” was used fairly broadly; spending time near plants or windows quailed as time spent in such an area. Subjects were also tasked with documenting their physical activities and interactions with others. In total, the 537 volunteers participated in five different experiments.
During the study, the students consistently felt more energetic when spending time outside or near natural settings. By the same token, simply thinking about nature also had a positive effect on the students’ energy levels. Furthermore, the researchers found that nature could increase levels of vitality within a short timeframe. Students reported feeling more vigorous after just 20 minutes of exposure to natural environments.
A Path to Better Mental Health?
Aside from making you feel livelier, the great outdoors might also be good for your body. Consider the findings of a 2009 Dutch study, which surveyed the medical records of nearly 350,000 Holland residents. After reviewing the medical histories of their subjects, the study’s authors found that those who lived within 1 kilometer of a park or wooded area had a lower incidence of depression and anxiety, along with other medical issues (for those not familiar with the metric system, 1 kilometer is roughly equivalent to 0.6 miles).
On the flip side of the coin, people living in dense urban environments appeared more susceptible to numerous illnesses. When combing through the numerous medical records available to them, the Dutch researchers recorded the frequency of 24 separate conditions among their subjects. These medical problems included various diseases of the cardiovascular, nervous and respiratory systems. Of these 24 conditions, fifteen were more commonplace for city dwellers.
This trend also applied to those with mental health problems. Specifically, 2.6% of Dutch residents who lived in predominately metropolitan areas (defined as having only 10% “green space” by the study) suffered from anxiety disorders. In contrast, this figure dropped to just 1.8% for Dutch living in 90% “green space” areas. Dutch residing in urban centers were also more likely to be depressed (3.2%) than their rural counterparts (2.4%).
Outdoor vs. Indoor Exercise
You don’t have to be a gym rat to know that exercise is good for the body. What you probably aren’t aware of, however, is that physical activity may be even more beneficial in outdoor settings. Such was the opinion of researchers from Peninsula College of Medicine and Dentistry (PCMD), an institution based in the United Kingdom (the PCMD was split into two separate entities in 2013).
In a study released in February 2011, the PCMD research team reported that those who exercised outdoors received additional rewards for their efforts. Specifically, outdoor exercise was found to be more effective than indoor activities in boosting energy levels. Additionally, outside exercise was linked to a greater sense of post-workout satisfaction, and caused more people to state that they would keep performing a given activity in the future. As an added bonus, feelings of anger, tension, depression and confusion were found to be significantly alleviated by outdoor exercise.
The PCMD report was based on data from 11 separate trials, which monitored a total 833 adult volunteers. Though the study did yield some encouraging results, it did not examine if outdoor activities had a more pronounced impact on physical health. The study was published in the February, 4th 2011 issue of the journal Environmental Science and Technology.