Get out in Nature

Twenty years ago this month, I set out for Oregon, and I stayed 15 years before moving back home to southern California with a PhD, a husband and two kids. Last month my family and I spent two weeks driving around the northwest, visiting our favorite people and places. One thing I miss about living in the Pacific Northwest is that it seemed easier, there, to get out into nature—even if you did need a rain poncho most days of the year. The Columbia River Gorge, Mt. Hood and the rest of the Cascades, the wild Oregon coast and the green hills of the Willamette Valley—they all lie within a couple hours’ drive from Portland. And laid out across Portland’s west hills is Forest Park, the largest natural forested area within a U.S. city. Like many Portlandians, I spent many hours hiking its muddy trails and bombing down Leif Erikson Drive on my mountain bike.

Places with more trees than people and more wildlife than street traffic are harder to come by here in the Los Angeles basin, where suburbs sprawl from Simi Valley to San Diego. And we’re not alone here—about half the world’s population now lives in urban areas, and that number is expected to climb to 70% by 2050. But wherever you live, natural places are worth seeking out. Research has shown that your mental health may depend on it: a rise in mental illness has been associated with urbanization. A walk in the woods, or even a park, has a calming effect on our minds and provides a much-needed respite from the constant barrage of stimuli that we all face today, particularly in cities. Yes, we all know that, but now researchers have shown it in a study published in July in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

The researchers studied 38 healthy subjects, who all took a 90-minute walk, either in a wooded area around the Stanford University campus, or on Palo Alto’s busiest thoroughfare. Subjects all responded to a questionnaire designed to measure rumination—you know, that thought process where you’re all wrapped up in your own story, the drama of how you were wronged, or how nothing seems to be working out. After the nature walk, subjects scored lower on the rumination test compared to before their walk, but the urban walkers saw no reduction in rumination. Brain activity also changed after the nature walk, according to brain-imaging scans taken before and afterwards. Those who walked in the natural environment had reduced neural activity in a brain area called the subgenual prefrontal cortex (sgPFC), which is thought to be the very seat of rumination and has been linked to risk for mental illness. Activity in the sgPFC did not change in those who walked in the city. The authors suggest that the new findings provide clues about the link between urban living and mental illness, and to the neurological benefits of nature. “Understanding the mechanisms by which nature experience buffers against the negative repercussions of urban life will help us better plan for an ever more urban world,” they wrote.

So wherever you live—get out there, even just for a little while. Take a walk in nature—your brain will thank you.