When I'm having a bad day, nothing lifts me out of the doldrums like a run or a power walk. I always assumed exercise got all the credit for the mood boost, but lately there's been a lot of buzz around ecotherapy, the concept of using the power of the great outdoors to improve mental health. That would explain why I feel so much better after an hour on the sidewalk versus the treadmill.
Beyond burning fat and calories, increasing physical strength and boosting energy, here are some of the lesser-known benefits of open-air activity.
Silence Your Negative Inner Monologue
Can't stop dwelling on a recent fight with your spouse, botched project, financial blunder or another problem screaming to be solved? Maybe it’s time you take a hike--literally.
In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, participants who walked in a natural setting for 90 minutes reported far fewer amounts of rumination, which is the medical term for thinking obsessively about negative life events. When left unchecked, one dark thought can trigger another, and another, eventually leading to depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses.
When researchers studied the brain patterns of the nature walkers, they noticed less neurological activity associated with mental illness as compared to those who walked for the same amount of time in a city setting. The takeaway? If you have a choice between a stroll through the suburbs or a trail hike, the latter is more likely to improve your outlook on life.
For writers, there's nothing better than those golden hours when the words flow effortlessly, but there are also the inevitable lulls when the literary pipes get clogged. I've noticed that I'm most prolific immediately after a run or workout, when the post-exercise euphoria is still surging.
It's not just a coincidence. In a 2012 study, psychologists Ruth Ann Atchley and David L. Strayer found that spending time in nature helps to strengthen problem-solving skills. In the study, participants went on a four-day backpacking trip after handing over their electronic devices. When given complex tasks, the tech-free hikers showed a 50 percent improvement in using creative thinking and problem solving strategies.
According to the researchers, the study findings show that unplugging from technology and spending more time in quiet nature settings helps to reduce mental distractions, sharpen focus and strengthen cognitive abilities.
Improve Children's Attention Spans
According to the CDC, approximately 11 percent of children had been diagnosed with Attention-Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) as of 2011, and more than 6 percent were treated with medication. As ADHD diagnoses continue to rise, psychologists are exploring alternative therapies, including prescriptions to nature instead of pills.
In a study by Frances E Kup, PhD, and Andrea Faber Taylor, PhD, researchers analyzed 49 different indoor and outdoor activities children commonly engage in outside of school. Kids who were exposed to the "green outdoor activities" showed a significant reduction of ADHD-related symptoms—including high amounts of inattention, impulsivity and hyperactivity—as compared to those who chose indoor activities.
Ditch the Doldrums
The next time you're feeling blue, try some green therapy. In a study conducted at the University of Essex, researchers found that depression was reduced in more than 70 percent of people who took nature walks. This was in stark contrast to a group who walked for the same amount of time in an enclosed shopping center—only 45 percent of the indoor walkers reported reduced depression, and 22 percent even said their depression was worse.
Improve Overall Mental Health
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in four adults suffers from mental illness each year, and a 2011 report shows that more than one in five American adults takes some kind of medication to treat their condition. But could the simple act of going outside provide a natural, and perhaps even more effective, means of improving mental health? Some research suggests it's likely.
MIND, a mental health advocacy group based in the UK, has funded more than 130 Ecominds projects. These initiatives have matched thousands of people who have mental health issues (or are at risk of developing them) with a variety of ecotherapy treatments. At the end of each project, nearly 70 percent of participants reported an improvement in their mental health.
"Our research shows that a holistic treatment like ecotherapy delivers not only health benefits, but wider social benefits and cost savings that medication could not," Paul Farmer, Mind's Chief Executive, said in a statement. "Ecotherapy improves mental wellbeing, it helps people become more physically active, it gives people the skills to get back into work or training, and it helps people who are lonely or socially isolated to broaden their networks. These are all important factors that can prevent people developing a mental health problem to start with."
Next time you're stuck in a funk, the simple act of getting outside could help you feel better on the inside. You just might find that engaging in an outdoor activity—whether it's running five miles, walking around the block or just doing a little gardening—could be just what the doctor ordered.
Do you get a mood boost from spending time outside? What's your favorite form of ecotherapy?
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