Enjoying the sun and nature can boost mental health

Following nature trails, trekking in the mountains, enjoying the ocean breeze, bathing in forests, and beautifying gardens are just examples of outdoor activities that can do wonders for your mental health! 

Spending time in nature, especially with exercise, can improve your mental health and well-being. 

Here are some benefits of doing activities outdoors: 

Lowers cortisol levels and stress 

A small study [1] published recently in the journal Frontiers in Psychology showed that spending as little as 20 minutes in nature could help reduce stress. The lead author, Mary Carol Hunter, a faculty of the School for Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan, examined the relationship between the duration of exposure to a nature experience and changes in stress biomarkers such as salivary alpha-amylase and salivary cortisol. 

Thirty-six urban dwellers who voluntarily participated in the study were asked to have a nature experience (NE) at their convenience for eight weeks. The NE was defined as spending time in an outdoor place that would allow them to feel connected with nature. They had to have the NE at least three times a week for at least 10 minutes or more. During the NE, participants were asked not to perform any strenuous aerobic exercise such as running, to not engage in social media or use the internet, to entertain or make phone calls, or to engage in conversations, and reading. 

Dubbed the nature pill, the NE reduced salivary cortisol and alpha-amylase in all study subjects. However, the most significant effects were seen when participants had the nature pill for at least 20 minutes to 30 minutes. While taking the nature pill for more than 30 minutes still yielded positive effects on salivary cortisol, the decrease in cortisol levels was not as fast as in the 20-30 minutes exposure time. 

Enjoying the sun and nature can boost mental health

Mary Hunter, who leads the study, observed that the nature pill could be as simple as 20 minutes of doing yard work, gardening, or sitting quietly in one’s backyard. All these activities significantly lowered cortisol and alpha-amylase, known stress markers. Salivary alpha-amylase is increased following psychosocial stress [2]. 

Exposure to nature yields several benefits. These include the following: 

  • Better sleep 
  • Better state of mental well-being, including reduction of stress 
  • Ability to stay focused 
  • Experience of awe
  • Reduced inflammation 
  • Exposure to cleaner air 
  • Exposure to health-building microbes 
  • Exposure to beneficial secondary plant compounds called phytoncides, which can boost the immune system 

You can enjoy the benefits of the nature pill without complete immersion in nature or a trip to the wilderness. Instead, any place that allows you to feel connected to nature will do. 

Hunter also recommends taking a mindfulness approach when taking the nature pill. This approach encourages you to notice the sound, smell, or sight of nature. Integrating exercise when experiencing nature could further improve mental health and well-being. Hunter explains that “physical exercise brings greater emotional well-being in natural settings than the same activity done indoors.” Hence, when planning to enjoy nature for 20 minutes, couple it with exercise such as walking or doing yard work. Simple physical activities such as walking have been shown to promote longevity apart from improving mental health and well-being. 

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Reduces depression and anxiety 

Spending time in nature has been shown to reduce anxiety and depression. Anxiety symptoms are described as symptoms of stress, while stress raises levels of cortisol. Spending time with nature can reduce cortisol levels, which in turn can reduce stress and symptoms of anxiety. 

A study conducted by a group of researchers from Stanford [3] revealed that walking for 90 minutes on a forest trail or any other natural area, compared with walking in a high-traffic urban setting, demonstrated decreased activity in regions of the brain associated with repetitive negative thoughts. 

The study, which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, also revealed that access to natural areas is critical for mental health, especially in a rapidly urbanizing world. One of the authors, Gretchen Daily, a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, reiterates that “our findings can help inform the growing movement worldwide to make cities more livable and to make nature more accessible to all who live in them.” 

About 50% of the population in the world lives in urban settings. However, this number will continue to rise as it is forecasted that in the following decades, the proportion of populations in the world who are urban dwellers will increase to 70%. However, disconnection from nature due to urbanization has increased dramatically, and so have depression and other mental health disorders. 

As pointed out by researchers [3], city dwellers are at a 40% higher risk of developing mood disorders and a 20% higher risk of anxiety disorders than people living in rural areas. Further, those who live in cities are twice as likely to suffer or develop schizophrenia compared with rural dwellers. 

Alleviate blurry and double vision for people who have too much screen time 

People who work using computers could experience digital eye strain (DES) [4]. Symptoms include musculoskeletal symptoms such as headache, neck stiffness, backache, neck pain, and shoulder pain. All these symptoms are associated with postural problems, unsuitable chairs or tables, and improper distance between the screen and the eye.

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Enjoying the sun and nature can boost mental health

Other DES symptoms include double vision, blurred vision, slow focus change, myopia, and presbyopia. In addition, DES symptoms include dryness and redness of the eyes, burning and gritty sensations after an extended period of computer usage. 

It has been shown that taking regular breaks from computer screen time and going outdoors to rest the eyes or look at nature could help relieve eye strain and musculoskeletal problems. Hence, when using computers, take regular breaks and savour nature for 10-20 minutes to reduce eye strain and improve vision. 

Improved cognitive function, brain activity, blood pressure, and immune function  

A review [5] conducted by Jimenez, a member of the Department of Epidemiology at Harvard T.H. Chan of the School of Public Health, demonstrated that exposure to nature is associated with improved cognition, including mental clarity and concentration, and higher levels of creativity. 

The study, which was published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, also reported that even after short periods spent in nature or natural environments are significantly associated with improved attention, perceived restorativeness, and executive function. The latter is involved in decision-making and critical thinking. Hence, spending more time outdoors, even for short periods, could have positive effects and benefit your mental health. 

Brain activity is also improved when you are in a natural environment. The review by Jimenez and colleagues found that exposure to nature resulted in increased oxygen-haemoglobin concentrations in the brain’s prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is an area of the brain involved in emotional regulation. 

Further, exposure to nature can reduce blood pressure in both younger and adult populations, with or without hypertension. Significantly, forest walking is associated with improved relaxation and immune function. Improvements in immune function may be due to exposure to phytoncides. Plants and trees emit a substance called phytoncides to protect themselves from predators. When humans are exposed to these substances, they could act as hormones in the human body, increasing the activities of natural killer cells and reducing stress hormones. 

Additionally, the review by Jimenez and others reported that a trip to a forest park also increases the levels of proteins linked to the reduction of cancer cells. These anti-cancer intracellular proteins are increased when individuals undergo forest bathing, an event popularized in Japan. Forest bathing often lasts 2 to 3 days, with many participants claiming better mental health and mood during their exposure to trees and nature. 

Promotion of better sleep, reduction of diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer risk 

The same review by Jimenez and colleagues revealed that exposure to green space might reduce stress, and high blood pressure, which are all linked with cardiovascular disease risk and improved levels of physical activity. 

Proximity to green space is associated with increased physical activities such as biking, walking and running. Further, sleep quality is improved following exposure to nature. In addition, spending time in nature is associated with a reduced risk of diabetes and cancer.

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Other benefits 

Spending time with nature also exposes you to the sun, which helps your body boost levels of vitamin D. This vitamin is essential for optimal bone growth and in regulating the immune system. 

Deep breaths of fresh air also calm your mind, as meditation does for your body. 

Take away 

When enjoying nature or taking a trip to the beach, it is best to protect yourself from too much exposure to the sun. The latter is associated with an increased risk of skin cancer. Protect yourself by using suitable sunscreen and wearing a hat. 

Wear your sunglasses when going outdoors to reduce eye exposure to the sun. Always check the temperature outside so you can dress appropriately for the weather or season of the year. Finally, always stay hydrated since you can quickly get hydrated when the outside temperature is high. 

There are several benefits of the nature pill. Begin enjoying nature and be on your journey to mental health, wellness, and longevity. The best part of the nature pill? This is free! 

[1] ​​https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00722/full
[2] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16002223/ 
[3] https://www.pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.1510459112 
[4] https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s40123-022-00540-9 
[5] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8125471/ 

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