Taking a walk in the park is not just for your body, but your brain as well. Researchers at Stanford University recently conducted a study that shows walking in nature has benefits for your brain and mood.
Taking a walk is often a recommended natural way to reduce stress and anxiety. This study confirms what has mainly been intuitive and anecdotally soothing, even therapeutic. Being close to nature can help lower anxiety.
Urbanization, though not without certain benefits, has been linked to increased risk of anxiety and depression, as well as mental disorders.
The study investigated the impact of nature on rumination (repetitive negative thought or brooding), a risk factor for mental illness. 38 healthy participants were randomly assigned to take a 90-minute walk in either a natural or urban environment (19 participants to each group).
One group was assigned to walk through a leafy, quiet, tree-lined portion of the Stanford complex and the other a busy, multi-lane highway. They were all allowed to walk at their own pace.
The researchers measured participants’ levels of brooding via a questionnaire. Brain activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex (sgPFC) was also checked through scans. This area of the brain has been shown to display increased activity during sadness and depression.
Immediately After completing the walk, both the brooding questionnaire and brain scans were completed again. Participants who walked along the highway (urban group) still showed high sgPFC activity, indicating that their minds were not soothed. Their broodiness was also unchanged.
On the other hand, participants who walked in the tree-lined paths (park group) showed “meaningful improvements” in their mood, with decreased broodiness and decreased sgPFC activity. Decreased sgPFC activity is indicative of soothing effect in park-like walking. Though this study appears to focus more on mood, it supports an earlier study that indicated that both mood and cognition, including working memory.
Taking long walks in the park or the woods is therefore good for you physical as well as mental and emotional fitness. Taking your significant other could add a little romance in your relationship. Taking a pet is also a great idea.
You can read a more detailed report on this study at The New York Times blog.