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by Holly St. Lifer
Updated August 19, 2022
Obsessing over how you lost your temper with a colleague at work? Or why that handsome date didn't ask you out again? If so, there's an easy way to stop that negative self-talk: Take a stroll amid the grass, trees, sun and chirping birds. According to research, walking in nature can help diminish the tendency to be so hard on yourself and offers brain benefits in memory and reduced anxiety, to boot.
The study at Stanford University divided 38 urbanites into two groups. Half walked through greenery on Stanford's campus and the other half through bustling downtown Palo Alto, Calif. Before and after, they answered a questionnaire measuring their tendency toward rumination, or repetitive negative thoughts about oneself, which is linked to an increased risk of depression. They also had their brains scanned.
"We examined the subgenual prefrontal cortex, which is typically active during negative self-referential thinking," says Gretchen Daily, Bing professor of environmental science at Stanford and a study coauthor. The researchers' findings: "The scans from those who trekked in the city were still active but the scans from the nature walkers were quiet." Decreased anxiety and improved memory were also found among the nature walkers.
Earlier studies by Daily's team and others have shown additional brain boosts from nature walks, such as in attention, concentration, impulse inhibition and mood.
Daily says the researchers noted that the rate of urbanization is skyrocketing in parallel with a pronounced uptick in weight gain and mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression. An open question for researchers is whether it's the exposure to nature or the absence of urban stressors such as noise, traffic, crowds and the fast pace that's beneficial.
But one thing is certain: "Being out in nature lifts you out of yourself and connects you to something much bigger," Daily says. "Our participants took 90-minute walks, but even just a daily half hour can likely decrease this patterned thinking."
“The benefits of nature experience: Improved affect and cognition,” Landscape and Urban Planning, June 2015. To explore the effects of nature on cognition and mood, researchers assigned 60 participants to walk for 50 minutes in either an urban environment or a natural environment. Compared with the urban walkers, the nature walkers had more mood benefits (like lower anxiety and rumination) and cognitive benefits (including improved working memory). Read a summary of the study. (A fee is required to access the full study.)