How spending time in nature can improve our mental health

How spending time in nature can improve our mental health 1024 683 CalWild

Story by Michele Barinsky| Board Member

When you first step outside and into a place with trees, water, and open space (you know, nature!), what is the first sensation that you notice? Do you see green or blue? Can you feel a slight breeze or smell the fresh air? Do you hear birds or maybe running water or waves? Now, how does that change in environment make you feel? The first thing I notice is the smell of fresh air. Immediately my shoulders relax, my heart rate slows a bit, and the list of must-do tasks that plays on an endless loop in my head slowly stops. The longer and more frequently I engage with nature, the greater the benefits and the longer those benefits last, including improved focus, creativity, memory, and mood; reduced stress and anxiety; and better sleep. This is the profound impact that nature has on my mental health, and it echoes a fundamental principle: good mental health is synonymous with good health overall.

Research that showcases the benefits of spending time in nature

Numerous studies have demonstrated the cognitive and mood benefits of spending time in green and blue spaces and engaging in outdoor activities. (Weir, Monitor on Psychology, Vol. 51, No. 3, 2020). Those studies include experiments showing that exposure to nature improves memory, attention, and cognitive flexibility (Schertz and Berman, et. al., Current Directions in Psychological Science, Vol. 28, No. 5, 2019).

A short nature walk can reduce stress, anxiety, and depression (Harvard Health Online, 2021); and nature exposure is linked to increases in subjective well-being, happiness, a sense of purpose, and a decrease in mental distress (Bratman, et. al., Science Advances, Vol. 5, No. 7, 2019).

How just two hours a week outdoors can improve our well-being

For most of us, access to nature and wild spaces daily or even weekly seems impractical. Ninety-four point two percent (94.2%) of Californians live in urban areas, the highest percentage of any U.S. state (CBS News, December 22, 2022). While there have been studies showing that high-quality nature experiences such as hiking in remote parks and coastal locations have a higher mental health benefit than short strolls through urban parks (Wyles, K.J., et al., Environment and Behavior, Vol. 51, No. 2, 2019), an Australian study showed that even forty (40) seconds of staring at a green roof improved the attention and work quality of students doing menial tasks. (Lee, K.E., et al., Journal of Environmental Psychology, Vol. 42, No. 1, 2015). A study out of the United Kingdom suggests that two (2) hours a week, either at once or in increments, in local parks and other green spaces will significantly improve self-reported health and well-being. (White, et al., Scientific Reports, 9, 773, 2019).

Photo by K Weskin

Practical tips for getting your weekly dose of nature

So, let’s get outside! First, make a plan and stick with a routine. We all know action becomes easier with repetition. As a fellow Californian urbanite, here are a few things I do to get my weekly dose of nature:

  1. Take a walk around your neighborhood. I start every day with a fifteen (15) to twenty (20)-minute walk around my neighborhood. I purposefully pick a route that takes me to streets with the most tree cover and past houses with the most green landscaping. One neighbor has a beautiful hedge of white roses and I stop and smell them every day they’re in bloom. At least one study has shown that small acts of simply noticing nature (e.g., the hedge of roses or the tree at the bus stop) improves well-being, happiness, and a feeling of connectedness to both other people and nature. (Passmore and Holder, Journal of Positive Psychology, Vol. 12, Issue 6, 2017).
  2. Take your lunch break in a nearby park. If you don’t live near green spaces, check out what’s near your work. Many commercial neighborhoods and office parks have pocket parks.  Twenty (20) minutes, five (5) times per week gets you close to that two (2) hour per week goal!
  3. Take a detour on your commute. On one of my regular commutes, I can take an inland freeway or a slightly longer route that runs along the Pacific Ocean. Every single time I opt for the ocean route. It adds about five (5) to ten (10) minutes to my drive, but I actually enjoy that time. On another regular route, I take a two (2) minute detour to drive down a street that has large trees grown together in a canopy over the street. It’s just two (2) minutes and it still improves my day.
  4. Learn about and plan for a weekend excursion. California is full of city, state, and national parks and wilderness areas. We’re privileged to live in one of the most beautiful states in our nation and I bet there are several options for day and overnight trips near you. If you’re an experienced or new outdoors woman or man let CalWild help you plan your first or next adventure.

Check out our CalWild Adventures where you can find information on hikes and other immersive trips to California’s wild places.