Spending time in nature has been associated with a range of physical and mental health benefits and has become even more important during the COVID-19 pandemic. International travel is down considerably, and more people are exploring their own and neighboring communities. In examining data from the trail-specific navigation app AllTrails, RunRepeat found that the number of hikes logged on the app in 2020 was up 171.36 percent from the year prior—4.71 million compared to 1.74 million.
The following are six reasons why you should continue to prioritize immersing yourself in nature.
Simply living near a green space can have a positive effect on your mental well-being. Hiking in forests or participating in eco-immersive tourism, then, can be especially beneficial. Researchers of a 2009 study published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health examined the medical records of more than 345,000 residents of the Netherlands. They found that those who lived within 1 kilometer of a wooded area or nature park had fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety than those who lived further away from dedicated green space. Moreover, these symptoms were more commonly found among individuals living in urban environments.
Other studies have linked nature to happiness. In May 2013 more than 10,000 Canadians took part in the David Suzuki Foundation’s 30×30 Nature Challenge. Participants were prompted to spend 30 minutes in nature for 30 consecutive days. Not only did participants report being happier, but they also felt more productive at work, had fewer sleep disturbances, and were more energetic.
Additional studies have supported the notion that spending time in natural surroundings, whether it’s forests or parks, helps strengthen the immune system. Researchers have suggested that one of the primary reasons for this is phytoncides, the airborne chemicals plants produce to protect themselves from insects and to keep from rotting.
Forest bathing, or “shinrin-yoku,” is a popular therapeutic practice in Japan. To confirm the immune-boosting benefits of this practice, researchers split individuals into two groups and had them each walk for several hours in wooded and urban areas on two different days. Members of both groups showed lower concentrations of cortisol and had lower blood pressure and pulse rate on the day in which they walked in the forest.
Research has also explored the effect spending time in nature has on creativity. As part of a 2012 study, 120 people split into two groups were given creativity tests. The first group of 60 people took the test before embarking on a hike, while the second group was administered the test after a four-day hike. The group that had already been hiking scored 50 percent higher than the other group. This wasn’t surprising to lead researcher Ruth Ann Atchley, who pointed to the many distractions of modern life as an impediment to creativity.
Being outside on its own doesn’t directly impact weight, but hiking in forests on trails with significant climbs in elevation can help burn calories quicker and more efficiently. One study found that spending time at higher altitudes not only lowers appetite but can speed up metabolism. It can also be easier and more enjoyable to exercise in nature as opposed to walking or running on a treadmill or in urban areas.
Being in nature enhances cognitive function, particularly short-term memory. A study conducted at the University of Michigan involved two groups of students that were prompted to take a brief memory test before and after walking in different settings. The group that walked around an arboretum scored 20 percent better on the test than they did before the walk, whereas the other group walked down a city street and didn’t show consistent improvements from the first test.
In his book Sky Above, Earth Below: Spiritual Practice in Nature, well-known spiritual teacher and meditation master John P. Milton spoke about the high-tech distractions, environmental toxins, and noise pollution in the modern world that attack our sensibilities. He argues that being immersed in nature is a spiritual and even meditative practice that promotes connectivity with the natural world.
“When we leave these tensions for a while to cultivate our natural wholeness in the wild, we are renewed with the fresh vitality and spirit of Nature,” he wrote. “New pathways open for living in harmony with our communities and the Earth. We discover deep inspiration to help transform our lifestyles and our culture toward harmony and balance.”
Milton isn’t just theorizing about nature’s meditative effect. Researchers from the University of Edinburgh and Heriot-Watt University used portable electroencephalograms to measure the brain waves of 12 healthy young adults after they walked 1.5 miles through three different areas: a shopping district, a green space, and a busy commercial district. Analysis indicated lower engagement and arousal and a higher degree of meditation among participants when they moved into the green space.