If you’re like most people, you may be feeling more stressed these days. I know I do as I work to navigate my way through the uncertainty of my new normal. It’s that uncertainty that can ramp up stress and anxiety. Without relief, it’s a slow burn to poor health, both emotional and physical.
Now more than ever, we all need to be mindful to destress on a regular basis. One of my favorite activities — taking long walks in nature — does this perfectly. And, it may just be what you need to reclaim your calm and serenity.
Francesca and I love to take nature walks. Of course, the physical benefits are great. Hiking over uneven terrain is a great way to improve balance and core strength, something you don’t get walking inside on a treadmill or around a city block. Our nature walks help us maintain heart health, immune function and much more. Plus, we’re burning calories, which helps us maintain healthy body weights.
When we were younger and arguing about something, we would head outside and go for a jog. It was just what we needed to sort through any challenge. Funny, I can’t remember a time when we didn’t come back a happy couple. I used to share this story as I traveled around the world talking with people about optimal health because jogging had such a positive effect on our relationship. Now we go for walks. Either way, if we’re mad about something, it’s hard to come back angry.
To me, the real miracle of jogging or a nature walk is its effect on emotional health, especially its ability to help reduce stress and anxiety.
There’s something especially stirring about nature’s beauty that keeps you from ruminating over problems. It’s hard to be distracted when you’re looking at the majesty of a hilltop view or listening to the calming sounds of waves lapping on the shore or smelling the earthy aroma of pine trees.
When you’re out in nature, it’s as if your body begs you to stay in the moment so you can release stress and re-energize to tackle your day better.
Need more inspiration to add nature walks to your routine? Here are three of my top reasons to put on hiking boots and head for the nearest nature trail:
A nature walk helps you feel more positive
A nature walk is one of the best ways to banish the blues. In one study, university researchers in Finland completed a national survey of over 2,000 people. They found that outdoor activity in nature had the greatest impact on emotional well-being. Not only was it better than indoor activity, it was also better than outdoor activity in “built environments,” like walking through city streets, or cycling in a bike lane, or playing on a sports field.
So, if you need a serious pick-me-up to boost your mood, head to the nearest nature trail.
A nature walk helps reduce anxiety while sharping problem-solving skills
If you feel that it’s tougher for you to make decisions these days, then you’ll want to make sure nature walks are part of your regular routine. Why? You’re likely to make better decisions.
In one study, Stanford University researchers found that a nature walk improves cognition as well as emotional well-being. For this study, the researchers randomly assigned 60 adults to one of two walking groups in and around Stanford, California. They asked one group to take a walk in a natural environment and the other group to walk in an urban setting. The walk lasted about an hour, 50 minutes to be precise. Before and after their walks, the participants completed a series of tests to gauge their cognitive function as well as emotional state and mood.
As suspected, the researchers found that, compared to the urban walk, the nature walk helped the participants maintain an overall positive emotional state, including less anxiety and rumination.
What’s really interesting to me is the researchers also found that walking in nature increased working memory performance, compared to walking in an urban setting. Working memory is the part of memory important for reasoning and decision-making. And, don’t forget, this was after only one 50-minute walk.
So, when you need to make a tough decision, taking a nature walk first may help.
A nature walk takes less time than you may think
You don’t have to go overboard adding nature walks to your regular routine. In fact, when you spend as little as 30 minutes outside in nature, you’ll reap benefits.
In one study, university researchers in Australia found visiting an “outdoor green space” was especially valuable for city dwellers. For this study, they recruited over 1,500 residents of Brisbane City to see whether spending more time in nature improved mental, physical or social health.
Turns out, it does all three.
Those who made longer visits to outdoor green spaces were more likely to have a positive mood and lower blood pressure than their nature-avoiding counterparts. What’s more, those who visited more often had better social connections.
When they crunched the numbers, the researchers found it doesn’t take much effort to make a health impact. Spending as little as 30 minutes a week visiting an outdoor green space could reduce depression by up to 7% and high blood pressure by up to 9% in the population.
So, not only could a simple walk in nature help you stay healthy, it could lighten the load on a country’s public health budget.
Of course, if you live in an urban area, finding a nature trail nearby can be a challenge. The good news is more and more urban planners understand the importance of including plenty of green spaces in cities. So, it’s a good bet you’ll find a city garden, a public park or a nature retreat near you. If you need help finding one, check with your local parks and recreation department. You’ll be glad you did.
The bottom line
If you need to destress, I encourage you to set your intention right now. Choose to get outside and enjoy a little nature, every day if you can. The rewards are too good to pass up, starting with something we can all use more of these days: calm and clarity.
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