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It is easy to forget that we are living, breathing organisms – albeit, highly evolved ones – with intrinsic ties to the Earth and organic matter. The 21st-century brain is overstimulated by constant topics and multitasking requirements, keeping it in a constant state of processing, perception, and fight-or-flight reactivity. Technology, growing population density, and the speed with which the world around us moves adds extra strain to keep up.

However, there is a simple answer to remediating all of these first world effects and it lies in getting outside. The basic act of walking in natural settings has the immediate power to soothe the brain and light up areas that are associated with feelings of peace, wellbeing, and creativity. 

The environmental aspects readily restore the brain with immediate mental and physical benefits. Nate Sowa, MD, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry at the UNC School of Medicine says that walking or hiking in nature is effective in reducing anxiety and depression. These benefits ripple outwards into physical effects like reducing heart rate and blood pressure.

“Walking in itself has shown to reduce levels of anxiety and depression, and actually be preventative in some cases of depression. There’s even more evidence of it now that doing in nature or natural surroundings improve those results even further,” says Dr. Sowa. “Something about being in nature is calming to humans, we seek environments that seem calming and protective to us. It’s starting to show that people’s brains work differently when they are in nature compared to when they are in an urban setting, so it’s thought that being in a natural setting can change the way we think, affects our emotions, and reduces our anxiety levels and our stress levels.”

Urbanization is on the rise. Currently, 50% of the global population lives in urban areas and that number is projected to rise to 70% by 2050. Published findings from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences report that urbanization is associated with increased levels of mental illness like depression. Researchers say walking in nature is key in relaxing the prefrontal cortex – the most evolved brain region – that is responsible for guiding our behavior and serving a person’s highest cognitive abilities. Study participants who walked in nature for 90 minutes, compared to participants who walked in an urban environment for 90 minutes, showed a decrease in self-reported rumination (i.e., prolonged and often maladaptive self-focus) and neural activity in the subgenus prefrontal cortex — revealing that nature improves our mental well-being and those accessible natural areas with urban contexts are a critical resource for mental health.

Anyone on any given day can reap the benefits of nature walks. “You don’t have to go climb a mountain to get the benefits of hiking,” says Dr. Sowa. Even 10 minutes to get some fresh air and sunshine and stretch your legs can be beneficial for your cognitive functions, he adds. It is no wonder that our hearts, minds, and bodies flourish when we are immersed in nature. By allowing the mind to be at ease, the revitalizing aspects of connection to nature’s sensory experience restores us with a sense of wholeness and humanity. We are simply not machines and there is no lasting glory in staying on a mentally exhaustive treadmill. Science has given us even more proof that our intuitive urge to get outside is exactly what can help balance and nurture optimal mental and physical health. Link to the full article