10 May 2021

The great outdoors: why does nature improve our mental health?

The great outdoors: why does nature improve our mental health?

The link between the great outdoors and mental health is widely cited, and spending time outdoors is recommended as a therapy for those living with mental health issues. But how do we define nature and why do ‘natural environments’ improve mental health? Must an environment be ‘natural’ to be restorative? This article will explore these questions with academic research and offer actionable ways for you, and those you care for, to benefit from a restorative environment. 

The key mental health benefits of nature

Philosophically, nature has long been seen as a healing source of peace and energy, yet the scientific community started studying why and how as recently as the late 1980s. Though nature is often recommended as a therapy, research into it is still very much ongoing. 

Improved focus and reduced mental fatigue

In 1989, Kaplan and Kaplan first proposed ‘Attentional restoration theory’ (ART), a highly influential theory based on studies into the benefits of nature. Their widely accepted theory found that mental fatigue and concentration can be improved by time spent in nature. This study also suggests that the capacity of the brain to focus on a specific task is limited and results in fatigue.

To combat this, ART proposes that people increase exposure to natural environments to enable the brain to recover and replenish attention capacity.

Indeed, for people living with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, getting outside can be recommended as a form of natural treatment in addition to, or instead of, medication to reduce symptoms.

Reduced stress and anxiety

The ART framework notes that natural, restorative environments are beneficial because they include the experience of being away and escaping the demands of daily life.

This was certainly proven in the UK government’s study, the Monitor of Engagement with the Natural Environment (MENE), which examined 20,000 people in England as they recorded their weekly activities. It found that people who spent two hours a week or more outdoors reported being in better health and reduced levels of stress and anxiety than people who didn’t get out at all. In 2019, Public Health England defined a recommended ‘dosage’ of nature of 120 minutes per week for improved mental health outcomes.

On a physiological level, the reasons behind this are that time outdoors can lower blood pressure and stress (cortisone) hormone levels.

Improved mood and depression

Though decreased stress may be a big part of the reason why experiencing nature leads to improved mood, Gregory Bratman, of Stanford University, found evidence that nature may impact our mood in other ways, too.

Rumination, deep or considered thought about something, has been associated with the onset of depression and anxiety. In his study, Bratman used Functional Magnetic Resonance imagery (fMRI) and self-reported surveys to look at brain activity before and after participants took a 90-minute walk in a natural or urban setting. 

He reported that participants who walked in a natural setting versus an urban setting reported decreased rumination after the walk, and they showed increased activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain whose deactivation is linked with depression and anxiety.

Getting outdoors can also help prevent the onset Seasonal Affective Disorder, a mood disorder subset in which people with normal mental health throughout most of the year experience depressive symptoms, most commonly in winter. Experts are still studying the exact cause of such disorders, though a lack of vitamin D via sunlight or food is commonly cited as a key factor.

Tip: People who work from home or work night shifts are at risk of not getting enough vitamin D and, as a result, experiencing mental health issues. If this sounds like you, consider requesting a blood test from your GP. If it is an issue, they might suggest that you take supplements.

Defining the ‘great outdoors’: which natural environment is best?

Though it’s clear that getting outside is good for us, scientists are now researching to determine which environments are most beneficial and many experts have opposing views. Green spaces have received much attention, but some experts argue that ‘blue spaces’, such as lakes, rivers and sea, are of more value. Areas perceived as of ‘high environmental quality’ including nature reserves and protected habitats are considered by some to be more beneficial than areas with low biodiversity.

The case for urban greenspace and the built environment

As our towns and cities experience increased urbanisation and development, many people may spend less time in natural environments. If the relationship between natural environments and mental health is correct, this could have serious negative consequences on the world population and increasing accessibility to well-maintained green urban space and initiatives to encourage more engagement with nature could prove vital

In addition, man-made structures such as monasteries can also be considered restorative environments, as can residential and leisure environments such as museums and art galleries. These findings might suggest that the reasons why environments are restorative to some is down to association and preference, rather than the natural scene itself.

How to benefit from the great outdoors

Public Health England recommends that everyone spends 120 minutes per week outdoors and it’s important to take time away from work and other commitments to engage in this self care. Whether this involves travelling to a remote place or simply enjoying an urban greenspace two miles from home, evidence suggests that benefits will be experienced. Activities could include, but are not limited to walking, yoga and gardening.

Whilst you’re enjoying the outdoors, try to focus on what’s around you to feel connected to your environment and therefore disconnected from daily life. Consider what you can see, hear, feel and smell. Reflecting on how you feel afterwards and recording it in a journal may serve as a reminder and as encouragement to stick with the habit.

How carers can help service users access restorative environments

Wherever possible, service users should feel encouraged and supported to access the outdoors and, in particular, local urban greenspace. Due care and attention should be paid to their care plan to ensure that this happens safely, and consent is required from the care commissioner, next of kin or care home manager, for example. Also ensure that all medications and equipment are packed and ready to go and that staffing levels are adequate.

However, for people who are perhaps less able to travel or are limiting time spent away from home due to COVID-19, you should ask them for hobbies and places that they enjoy. This will help you either ‘bring the outside in’ with activities, for example with flower arranging, or create a safe environment, close to or within the home, that they can benefit from. We cover restorative activities for individuals living with Alzheimer’s or dementia here.

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