Mother Nature’s outdoor playground is the perfect anecdote for a blue mood, so why not head or outside for some fresh air?
Have you ever noticed the joyful expressions on people’s faces on that first warm, sunny day after a long, bleak winter? It’s almost as if we inherently know that spending time outdoors among the trees or positioning ourselves in or near bodies of water is an instant mood booster—a rite of passage for both humans and animals alike.
In fact, spending time outdoors to boost your mental health is such common knowledge that psychologists have a special word for it: ecotherapy (aka nature therapy or green therapy). Eco-therapists operate just like traditional therapists, except they also approach therapy sessions through the lens of their clients’ relationships with nature. In some cases, sessions may even occur in an outdoor setting.
The Japanese practice of forest bathing, or shinrin-yoku (which is basically being in the presence of trees), became part of Japan’s national public health program in 1982, even though picnicking under the cherry blossom trees en masse had already been a national pastime for centuries. So, if being outdoors feels like a treat, then perhaps we should all be treating ourselves more often!
The science behind the mental health benefits of nature
There is plenty of scientific research to back up the belief that being in nature is medicine for the mind. Countless studies have proven over the years that our concentration, cognition, creativity and productivity can all be boosted by going outside more often.
This is especially beneficial for people living with Parkinson’s disease who struggle with memory and cognition impairment, as well as stress, anxiety and depression. Let’s walk through some examples, shall we?
Being outside cuts down on mental fatigue. Spending most of the workday in front of a computer, glued to our smart phones, or in front of the TV for those marathon Netflix binges—all of these things keep our brains in overdrive. The only moments when our brains are allowed to relax and normalize after screen time is when we’re asleep or outside, hence why we should go outside more often.
Being outside reduces stress, depression and anxiety. Studies have shown that spending just 20 to 30 minutes outdoors each day can significantly reduce cortisol levels and therefore lower our chances of experiencing stress, depression, anxiety or preexisting mood disorders. Research has also found that exposure to natural light can be conducive to higher self-esteem and better moods.
Being outside makes us smarter. Just a one-hour walk outside was enough to boost study participants’ short-term memory and attention spans by 2 percent. Spending time in nature has also been shown to increase mental performance in creative problem-solving tasks by up to 50 percent when combined with disconnecting from multimedia and technology, leading to better academic performances.
5 tips for making the most of your time outdoors
1. Try to work nature visits into your schedule whenever you can. You don’t necessarily have to put off outdoor time until all of your indoor responsibilities are taken care of. Sometimes it helps to take a break from your indoor chores to walk the dog or go on a quick bike ride. Chances are you’ll feel refreshed and motivated enough to finish up your inside tasks when you return home.
2. Do some research to find out where the nearest parks, reserves or forests are in your area. It’s hard to imagine life before Google Maps, right? Living in a city doesn’t mean you’re out of luck. Several studies have shown that even taking a simple stroll through a city park can improve your physical and mental health. Remember that even the densest urban areas have designated nature spots, such as Central Park in NYC or Grant Park in Chicago.
3. Join a club or group to help motivate you to go outdoors more often. Living with Parkinson’s can sometimes make people feel antisocial. But once they leave the house and interact with people outside, their mood instantly improves. Social media offers the advantage of easily locating other nature lovers in your community. Join a hiking group. Take a tai chi class in the park. Organize a picnic or barbecue with your friends and family. The options are endless.
4. Don’t forget water and snacks. Dry mouth or excessive thirst can be symptoms of Parkinson’s, and it can really put a damper on the day’s events. If it’s warm enough outside to make you sweat, you’ll want to replenish your body’s fluids immediately to prevent dehydration or heat stroke. Pack a healthy snack or two in case you feel hungry, preferably water-rich foods like watermelon, berries, cucumbers or celery sticks.
5. Have your phone on you but try not to use it unless there is an emergency. Remember that the whole point of going outside is to escape technology and unplug from the hecticness of your day-to-day life. While you should always have your phone charged and with you, there’s nothing wrong with leaving it in your pocket for the duration of your time outdoors. Take a few pics and videos if you must, but those email and social media notifications can wait.