by Lan Nguyen
Take a breath of fresh air. This common saying is used to advise people to calm down, de-stress, and think positively. But ever wonder why the phrase “go inside” never became synonymous for “relax”? Perhaps it’s because the outdoors promote cognitive development and good mental health, while your couch doesn’t. Studies show that spending time outdoors not only keeps your calves and thighs nice and slim, but it also keeps your brain fit in a multitude of ways.
Research has suggested that spending time outdoors, whether in the vast Appalachian Mountains or in an urban park, is associated with more happiness. In a study conducted last year, the European Centre for Environment and Human Health surveyed over 10,000 residents of urban areas about their proximity to green spaces and their levels of mental distress. The results showed that people who get more exposure to parks and other natural landscapes tend to have less mental distress than those who visit green spaces less frequently. Other studies indicate that time outside is correlated with decreased levels of anxiety and depression, improved sleep patterns and higher frequency of physical activity.
Because of all these benefits, some therapists have turned to using nature as a form of healing. Ecotherapy, the practice of using nature-based methods of healing and improving one’s relationship with nature, is currently a rising field. The practice, also known as “green therapy” or “earth-centered therapy”, came to the U.S. in the 1990s. Ecotherapists help patients recover from physical ailments as well as mental health struggles by facilitating various outdoor experiences including hiking, gardening or volunteering with environmental restoration groups.
Theresa Garza, a Chicago resident in her 50s, struggles with depression and spends most of her day in the office building where she works. Her therapist recommended that she spend more time outdoors.
“I get very depressed sometimes, but going outside and hiking cheers me up, so I try to go hiking often,” she said. “I go hiking when I feel too overwhelmed with daily life and need an escape.”
In addition to mental health benefits, research also suggests that time outdoors may also improve one’s attention span. Many people, especially college students, experience directed attention fatigue, which occurs when the brain’s attention mechanisms are worn out and overworked. These mechanisms are in charge of directing attention and blocking against distractions. So after a certain point, your brain gets tired of redirecting you to work on your paper when you keep refreshing Yik Yak and checking for that long-awaited Tinder match. This results in an inability to focus and leaves you feeling forgetful or impatient.
Although medications exist to combat attention deficits, psychologists have found a less synthetic remedy: nature. Research suggests that it takes less mental effort to focus in a natural landscape than to direct your focus in an urbanized setting, like a mall or office.
Because of these facts, many organizations have been created to promote spending time outdoors. An example is Chicago Wilderness, which aims to preserve the ecological health of the Midwest and emphasize the importance of time outdoors for healthy childhood development.
“We engage the urban population by making sure they have access to local parks and forest preserves or grassy areas in their neighborhood,” said Emilian Geczi, youth and community engagement director of Chicago Wilderness. “Spending time outside helps children develop creativity, helps them relax, and recreates a sense of peacefulness. It has a host of emotional and developmental benefits.”
The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign conducted a study to analyze some of these benefits. The researchers studied children diagnosed with ADHD and how spending time outdoors impacted their concentration skills. The children went on walks either in a park or in urban areas, and then were tested on their concentration abilities. Children who were exposed to the natural park setting performed better on concentration tests than the groups who explored urban environments.
So what does all this mean? Next time you’re losing focus while studying, are having a bad day or are seeking inspiration, instead of opening up a new tab to check Facebook, try bundling up and walking over to the lakefill. The array of cognitive benefits will put you in a much better state. What are you waiting for? Go outside!