While some crops can do better in the city, people don’t always seem to do as well.
It’s been known for a long time that spending time in nature is good for you. Visiting wilderness, even briefly, is associated with mental and physical health benefits, including lower blood pressure, reduced anxiety and depression, improved mood, better focus, better sleep, better memory, and faster healing.
(I find that even being able to see the horizon makes things better.)
But it’s not been clear how these effects were achieved. A research group from the Max Planck Institute for Human Development used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to look at the amygdala in 63 healthy adults.
The amygdala is an ancient part of our brain that helps control stress processing, emotional learning and the fight-or-flight response.
Take a walk
The researchers asked the subjects to fill out questionnaires, perform a working memory task and undergo fMRI scans while answering questions, some of which were designed to induce social stress. Participants were told the study involved MRI and going on a walk, but they didn’t know the goal of the research.
They were then randomly assigned to take a one-hour walk in either an urban setting (a busy shopping district in Berlin) or a natural one (Berlin’s 3,000-hectare Grunewald forest).
Researchers asked them to walk a specific route in either location, without going off-course or using their mobile phones along the way. After their walk, each participant took another fMRI scan, with an additional stress-inducing task, and filled out another questionnaire.
The scans showed reduced activity in the amygdala after a walk in the woods, the researchers report, which supports the idea that nature can trigger beneficial effects in brain regions involved with stress. And apparently it only takes 60 minutes.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, they also found that those who walked in the woods reported more enjoyment than those in an urban setting.
So this is another example of science confirming what we already knew but working out the details of how it happens. Bottom line: get outside, you’ll feel better for it. And while you’re there, you might want to get some exercise and make it even more worthwhile!