A lot of recreationists like myself will testify to the benefits of being outdoors, especially in natural settings. I always feel better after a weekend camping away from the urban sprawl of the city – physically and mentally.
But it’s not just anecdotal. There’s plenty of research to back up the claim that spending time in the great outdoors is good for your health and well-being.
And whilst this is good news, there’s a flip side to this story. Americans spend 93% of their lives indoors. Rapid urbanization is seeing people move away from rural, green spaces and into built-up, high-traffic cities.
Enjoying the great outdoors is an important part of a healthy lifestyle.
There are many potential benefits to going outside:
- A healthier heart
- Improved immunity to cancers and viruses
- Reset your sleep cycle for a better night’s sleep
- Maintains healthy eyesight
- Longer life expectancy
- Increased happiness
- Reduced stress
- ADHD treatment
- Improved creativity
- Enhanced memory
- Better academic performance
- Mental health management
Shinrin-Yoku or Forest Bathing
In the 1980s, as Japan continued rapid urbanization and the adverse effects of the tech boom (like increasing levels of depression) began to become evident, the Japanese government sanctioned studies into the benefits of being outside among trees.
Other outdoor activities like hiking or camping can be intimidating to new adventurers but forest bathing focuses on slowing down. It doesn’t require the same levels of experience or preparation.
The result of the research was the introduction of “shinrin-yoku” which translates to “forest bathing”. It was a national health campaign that aimed to get citizens to make use of the country’s 3,000 wooded miles as part of a healthy lifestyle.
Since then the body of research supporting the benefits of being in a natural environment has grown.
But I understand the skeptic’s hesitation as well. If someone asked me to go forest bathing and pick a tree to connect with (and maybe give it a hug…) I might not be overly enthusiastic to give it a shot.
But I get it. I do feel more grounded among nature – and trees especially.
My last camping trip this year was in a forest and I’ll admit COVID-19 and lockdown might have colored my experience but getting out of my apartment and into the natural environment was great for me. I felt well-rested and happy.
And just as my skepticism wasn’t unique, neither is my conversion. Kelly DiNardo’s article in the National Geographic at the start of this year talks about her experiences and how after a guided trip, she’s now a forest bathing aficionado.
Now, forest bathing has gone global with schemes being launched to use shinrin-yoku as a treatment for medical issues internationally. There has been increasing recognition among practicing medical professionals that being outdoors is beneficial to patients’ health.
Here in Scotland, after a successful pilot in 2018, NHS Shetland began allowing doctors at all medical practices across the island to write prescriptions that promoted outdoor activities.
Many doctors have been attracted to this project as a non-drug approach to health problems.
Studies have shown that forest bathing is associated with significantly lower stress levels, blood pressure, anxiety, depression and anger. These effects have been demonstrated repeatedly and the findings are clear. Forest bathing works.
“But how do I go forest bathing?” I hear you ask. Thankfully, there’s a guide for that! Melanie Choukas-Bradley has written a beautifully illustrated book titled The Joy of Forest Bathing: Reconnect With Wild Places & Rejuvenate Your Life which covers the how and the why in full. If forest bathing has piqued your interest then I thoroughly encourage you to give it a read. As Melanie puts it, “Your own experience is likely to offer compelling validation of the health data”.
Benefits for Physical Health
Every 40 seconds in America, someone has a heart attack.
Almost 1 in 4 deaths in America are the result of heart disease.
Clearly the health of our hearts is more important now than ever before. But what can we do about it?
Walking in a forest environment has been shown to promote cardiovascular relaxation in participants. Heart rate was lower and steadier for those who walked in a forest compared with a control group in an urban setting.
Another study found that blood pressure was also reduced after walking in a forest. Interestingly, this study also found that blood pressure was reduced by just viewing a forest.
Participants who sat to view the landscape in a forest environment for around 15 minutes had a blood pressure 1.7% lower than the control group who had viewed an urban landscape.
The paper suggests that forest environments have benefits for heart health through physical and physiological changes caused by the setting. These changes seem to be brought about by just being in nature!
Tip: Getting active in the outdoors is particularly beneficial for your heart as a sedentary lifestyle can accelerate the development of cardiovascular diseases – so don’t just stand about, go adventure!
Improves Your Immunity
Many plants common to forests and woodland areas produce organic compounds called phytoncides. One study has found that these compounds increase the activity of cells vital to our immune system.
When we breathe in phytoncides the number and activity of white blood cells called natural killer cells (or NK) increase. These cells defend our immune system from tumors and viruses.
Effects were found to be lasting for more than 30 days, which suggests that as little as one trip a month to a forest is enough to maintain the benefits to our immune system.
However, the author does emphasis that this was the first study on the effect of forest bathing on human immune function at the time.
Since then, research has consistently supported the benefit of phytoncides gained by forest bathing on the human immune system.
Early research into the effects of forest bathing on the human immune system also suggests that the experience enhances the production of anti-cancer proteins. A further study supported this but more research is needed.
There are too many compounding factors for definitive conclusions to be made but it’s a promising area for future research.
Vitamin D is also important to our immune system as well. In recent decades, vitamin D levels have been dropping in the population, and deficiency has increased.
Exposure to sunlight outdoors is how we get most of our vitamin D. However, it’s important to note that in the UK sunlight doesn’t contain enough UVB radiation in winter for our skin to make vitamin D.
In the USA, states above the 35 degrees latitude line (approximately the southern borders of Tennesse and Nevada) do not get enough sunlight in the winter months for effective vitamin D synthesis either.
There’s still plenty of reasons to get out in nature during the colder months though – so check out our guide to camping in winter to find out more!
Sunlight has also been shown to be beneficial to patients recovering from spinal surgery. Patients exposed to higher-intensity sunlight reported less perceived stress, marginally less pain, and lower pain medication costs.
In another study, researchers found that increasing exposure to daylight for women recovering from Cesarean Sections was significantly associated with an improvement in the interference of pain with patients’ lives.
Vitamin D gained through exposure to sunlight is beneficial in not only improving our immune system but some research suggests it has pain management qualities as well.
A Good Night’s Sleep
It’s important to keep your internal body clock ticking steadily. Your circadian rhythm is important for regulating your sleep cycle as well as hormone production, body temperature, and digestion.
When our sleep cycle is misaligned with our environment or we aren’t sleeping well enough it can cause health issues. In the US, sleep deprivation has been linked to 7 of the 15 leading causes of death.
Getting outdoors and exposing ourselves to sunlight helps to reset our circadian rhythm and restore a more natural sleeping pattern.
Evidence from the University of Colorado has shown that camping in an environment without artificial light for a week reconfigured participants’ internal clocks to a more consistent, natural timing with associated health benefits.
However, this study arguably better demonstrates the negative impact of artificial lighting on our circadian rhythm rather than the benefit of being outdoors.
The study required participants to sacrifice all-natural light including flashlights and personal electronic devices for a week.
This is a significant commitment to reset your internal clock. Most people will not be able to engage with this practice often – even backcountry camping still requires a flashlight.
Tip: If you’re worried about exposure to artificial light disturbing your circadian rhythm, use a blue light filter on your phone at night!
More recent research has suggested that less extreme measures still have benefits for our circadian rhythm. In the US, men over 65 have reported better sleep when they have access to nature.
However, evidence from the UK complicates the picture. The research found participants did not report lower levels of sleep quality in winter compared with summer, despite lower levels of exposure to sunlight.
Going outside in daylight was not associated with an increase in sleep quality in this study. The relationship between exposure to the great outdoors and a good night’s sleep may vary from person to person.
From personal experience, I can testify that I always feel I sleep better after spending some time outdoors. Even if I’ve not slept well on a camping trip, for about a week after I find it easier to get up in the morning and feel well-rested.
COVID-19 and Sleep
Research has taken advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to study the effect of reduced exposure to daylight on sleep equality during lockdown.
More participants (48%) reported worse sleep quality during lockdown compared with 15% of participants reported improved sleep quality. Better sleep quality was generally shown to be related to increased length of time spent outdoors.
However, these findings were not consistent across participants. Some reported better quality of sleep during lockdown, with less exposure to the outdoors.
Studies on quality of sleep and exposure to daylight and the outdoors are not conclusive. Nevertheless, it appears that for most people exposure to daylight helps regulate internal sleeping patterns.
But it is important to temper this by emphasizing that many factors influence our quality of sleep.
Don’t Be Short-Sighted
Research suggests that exposure to the outdoors in childhood has lasting benefits to the health of the eyes and vision.
The study from Australia found that children with low-levels of outdoor activity and high-levels of near-work activity were more than twice as likely to develop issues with myopia than children who engaged in a lot of outdoor activity and had low-levels of near-work activity.
The Canadian researchers found that for every hour a week spent outdoors reduced the likelihood of myopia development among schoolchildren by 14.3%.
Therefore, it appears that there is a valid case for outdoor activity protecting eyesight by reducing the likelihood of early myopia development.
It is suggested that this could be due to low light intensity indoors and pupil dilation straining the eye.
Researchers in the Netherlands conducted a massive study of over a quarter of a million citizens to understand the relationship between the number of green spaces in people’s living environment and their perceived general health.
The study found a strong positive relationship between nearby green spaces and improved perceived health.
The number of green spaces was deemed to be significant in determining overall perceived health even when socioeconomic factors and urbanization were accounted for.
In an even larger follow-up paper by the same researchers, it was shown that 15 out of 24 diseases studied living near a green space resulted in lower prevalence rates annually.
The strongest association was with depression and anxiety, suggesting green spaces might be vital to mental health.
Research into proximity and exposure to green spaces on mortality rates for women in the US found a 12% lower mortality rate for women with greater exposure to natural environments.
The biggest factors included a reduced risk of death from cancer, lung disease, and kidney disease.
Large-scale studies of the population such as these appear to point to the benefit of outdoor spaces on mortality, disease rates, and perceived health.
Benefits for Mental Health
Anxiety and Depression
Research from the University of Essex has indicated that immersion in natural settings is not only beneficial as a treatment for depression but as a preventative measure as well. It can encourage healthy stress responses and recovery patterns vital to mental health.
This is supported by a study from Denmark that found access to residential green spaces in childhood is associated with a lower risk of psychiatric disorders like depression from adolescence into adulthood.
Walking through a bamboo forest for 15 minutes has been shown to not only have physical health benefits but mental health advantages too.
Participants reported higher levels of improved moods and reduced anxiety after walking through a bamboo forest in comparison with urban control groups.
Tip: Get out and smell the flowers – the smell of lavender has been shown to reduce anxiety in dental patients. If things are getting overwhelming, a walk through blooming flora can have a relaxing impact
These findings have been reproduced for young women walking through forest areas for 15 minutes who reported lower scores of depression and anxiety.
University students participating in a forest-walking program also reported a significant decrease in depression after the intervention.
If you plan to do some walking to take advantage of the great outdoors – whether it’s an intense hike or a gentle stroll in the forest – make sure to read up on the ten essentials (and our seven suggested extras for a great trip).
Generally, evidence suggests that being outdoors has great benefits for mental health. Nature therapy can be used as an effective part of mental health treatments.
The Future of Going Outside: Staying In?
A study into the impact of the sight and sound of nature found that a virtual reality forest setting combined with physical activity reduced the symptoms associated with anxiety.
This suggests that it might be possible to gain the mental health benefits of being among nature without actually being among nature.
I understand that might sound a little dystopian (plugging into VR headsets to enjoy the great outdoors isn’t really what we want to promote here).
But this research could have potential applications for people unable to access the great outdoors, like people with mobility issues.
However, when participants were exposed to the images of the forest without sound, it had the opposite effect as subjects felt tense and uneasy. It appears full immersion is a key component to gain the benefits of the VR forest.
Earlier research had shown that a view of nature from a window had a significant positive impact on job satisfaction and reduced levels of stress compared to those without such a view.
Other research has found that dramatic murals of nature can also have higher restorative effects on college students than window views of real but mundane nature.
Happiness and Well-Being
Being outside can be beneficial to general mental well-being as well as reducing the impact of mental health issues. In other words, there’s good reason to say being outdoors makes us happier.
Previous research has shown how connection and engagement with nature can increase an individual’s well-being.
However, there are concerns that individuals who had a strong sense of connection to nature were at risk of negative effects on their well-being if they were unable to access natural environments.
People with strong connections to nature can also see their well-being decrease as they are dispirited by the global environmental crisis. The decimation of ecology can be emotionally draining to individuals.
As we continue to alter our relationship with the environment, our interactions with nature will also alter.
Check out our guide to the Leave No Trace principles for more information on responsible outdoor activity and what we need to do to preserve the future of the great outdoors.
The Secret to mappiness
Initiatives like the mappiness project by the London School of Economics illustrate how modern technology has, ironically, helped to show the benefits of being outdoors.
mappiness is a smartphone app that asks users to answer some questions at random points in the day about what they are doing and how happy they are. The app also gathers GPS data to determine participants’ locations when responding.
The data from this project was initially used in 2013 to show that happiness is greater in outdoor green or natural habitats rather than in urban settings.
But research from the same author in 2019 suggests the picture might be more complex. Along with other researchers, MacKerron found that happiness was greater in more scenic locations including in built-up urban areas.
Whilst we are getting better at quantifying happiness, it is still a complex task. Having read a lot of the research into the benefits of being outdoors there are some very good reasons to spend time in natural environments for your health but there are still research limitations.
Feeling Stressed Out?
Stress, unlike some mental health issues, can be measured by physiological indicators like the hormone cortisol. This makes researching environmental impacts on stress levels easier.
Several studies have shown that spending time outdoors decreases our cortisol levels.
One study sent participants to spend a couple of nights in the woods.
Another only exposed participants to a 15-minute walk in the forest or 14 minutes of viewing the forest landscape.
Meanwhile, a study from the Netherlands compared the effects of a 30-minute gardening session compared with 30-minutes of reading a book indoors.
All found greatly reduced levels of cortisol after exposure to natural environments in comparison with urban environments.
A separate study from Taiwan used salivary α-amylase, a major enzyme in the mouth, as an indicator of stress levels and found significantly lower levels in participants who had engaged in forest bathing compared to those in an urban setting.
Research from California has shown that visits to parks for children experiencing trauma has been successful in buffering the negative effects of their experience and improved their resilience and ability to handle and regulate stress over time.
Outdoor activity can be seen to lower stress levels indicated by physiological changes and self-reported levels, with effects having a positive lasting effect.
ADHD: An Alternative Treatment
A study on natural treatments for Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) found that green outdoor spaces appeared to reduce the symptoms of ADHD in children.
Despite engaging in the same activities, kids who spent time outside exhibited fewer symptoms than those who had played inside.
In a separate study, children with ADHD scored higher on concentration tests after a short walk through a park than a well-kept urban space.
These findings suggest that “doses of nature” can be used as a safe, widely accessible tool for managing ADHD symptoms.
Natural environments can help restore depleted emotional and cognitive resources for everyone, not just those with ADHD.
Social and Developmental Benefits
Boost Your Creativity
Psychologists found that after four days in the backcountry with no modern technology or media, backpackers scored 50% higher on creativity tests.
This is argued to be due to the modest intriguing stimuli found in nature that allow our directed-attention abilities to replenish.
In urban environments, we are constantly dealing with dramatic attention-seeking stimulation that often requires directed attention to avoid being hit by a car, for example.
Urban environments are busy and “full-on” whereas natural settings are slower and less risky.
Essentially, it can be draining to live in an urban environment. Being outdoors in green spaces gives our brain a chance to relax and recover.
Getting out for some fresh air in a relaxed, natural setting can help your brain breakout of thought patterns and boost creativity.
Maximize Your Memory
Not only does spending time in nature leave you with some special memories of your time, but it can also help boost your memory function.
Walking in nature has been shown to improve memory in ways other walks in urban environments failed to do.
In a study by the University of Michigan, participants were given a short memory test and then divided into two groups. One took a walk through a botanical garden and the other down city streets.
After returning, participants took another brief memory test. Those who had been on the nature walk scored 20% better than their original test whilst the urban control group saw no consistent increase.
Tip: Outdoor activities like hiking that require using cognitive skills (to safely navigate the terrain) are excellent exercises to keep your memory in tip-top shape.
Similar research into the cognitive benefits of natural environments for individuals with Major Depressive Disorder found a beneficial increase from interacting with nature. This included an increase in short-term memory.
Interestingly, the study found that the increase in mood among participants after a walk in nature was not correlated to improved memory capability. This suggests that the mechanics for improvement were separate.
In other words, being outside improves our mood and memory independently of each other.
Top of the Class?
Some studies have found a positive relationship between exposure to nature and academic performance.
The study in Michigan found an association between views with greater quantities of trees and shrubs and higher graduation rates and lower occurrences of criminal behavior.
It’s suggested that this might be due to the other physical and mental health listed above.
However, not all research has followed expected patterns of exposure to nature and improved academic performance.
Research into green urban landscapes and academic performance found a positive relationship between impervious surfaces (like concrete) and reading performance.
The relationship between access to natural environments and academic performance is not clear cut. But the overall benefits of being outdoors create improved personal circumstances for learning.
Wrapping It All Up
Getting out and enjoying the great outdoors comes with a panoply of health and developmental benefits.
However, sometimes recreationists are guilty of overstating these benefits. The conversation unfortunately can become an echo chamber for reverberating how wonderful going outside is.
All the health benefits listed here have been well researched to give an informed perspective. Going outside to enjoy these benefits or try to alleviate any health concerns can be used as part of a healthy lifestyle or treatment plan.
But be reasonable. Effects might not happen immediately (or at all – few of the studies listed found total coverage of participants) and can vary in efficiency.
My message would be that whatever you do to get outside, make sure you enjoy it. These studies have shown that even small amounts of time can make a difference.
Bruso, J. (2019) Don’t Call Nature a Cure-All, Outsideonline.com
Jenny owes a significant portion of her mental health recovery to nature therapy but warns against minimizing the ongoing mental health crisis by suggesting the outdoors is a cure-all or substitute for professional mental health care.
Tanner, C. (2020) Me and my mental health: ‘Getting outdoors in nature saved my life’, inews.co.uk
Eli Bishop, mother-of-two, had a stress-induced breakdown due to her high-pressure job. She started using sessions in nature as a therapy treatment and now works as an outdoor instructor and mountaineer guide.
The Unconventional Route (2020) Natural Outdoor Workouts: A Comprehensive Beginner’s Guide, theunconventionalroute.com
The benefits of exercise combined with the benefits of being outdoors is a recipe for success!
Worrall, S. (2017) We Are Wired To Be Outside, nationalgeographic.com
An interview with author Florence Williams to discuss the benefits of nature and how science is catching up with what writers like her have suspected about the restorative powers of nature for centuries.