Can wilderness and waterside walks lift mood, relieve stress … and allow the aimless reflection that helps balance and focus our minds and spirits?
As John Muir wrote, “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.”
But, to quote a certain 1980's hair band from Boston, is this “more than a feeling”?
It turns out that in fact, conventional wisdom about the restorative power of nature enjoys an increasing amount of scientific evidence.
We saw John Muir's quote in an article by former Los Angeles Times hiking columnist John McKinney titled, “Thoreau Was Right: Nature Hones the Mind” … which made us aware of a relatively new field of research.
McKinney's essay explores two decades of university studies showing that people report the strongest restorative experiences in the least-civilized places.
He cites research suggesting that nature offers serious medical benefits:
“… post-surgery patients resting in rooms overlooking trees recovered better and faster than those in rooms with a view only of a brick wall … [and] women with breast cancer who walked in a park, watched birds or tended gardens recovered more quickly and were in better spirits than those with little or no contact with the natural world.” (McKinney J 2011)
But a walk in the park … better yet, in the woods or along the water … can help people who feel blue or frazzled.
Nature proves restorative … the wilder the better
Many studies have now been conducted, all designed to test something called Attention Restoration Theory (ART).
The goal has been to quantify the restorative powers of nature and discover how natural settings enhance people's thinking and mood.
Three years ago, University of Michigan scientists reported on two “experiments that show that walking in nature or viewing pictures of nature can improve directed-attention abilities … thus validating attention restoration theory.” (Berman MG et al. 2008)
And addressing the reasons for nature's brain benefits, they noted that “Nature, which is filled with intriguing stimuli, modestly grabs attention in a bottom-up fashion, allowing top-down directed-attention abilities a chance to replenish.”
In contrast, they wrote, “… urban environments are filled with stimulation that captures attention dramatically and additionally requires directed attention (e.g., to avoid being hit by a car), making them less restorative.” (Berman MG et al. 2008)
And indoor environments are ruled by straight lines and flat, smooth surfaces, with none of the random or “fractal” shapes and movements seen everywhere in nature.
Scandinavian and student research affirms nature's relaxing power
Finnish researchers reported last year that most of 1,273 study participants believed that time spent in their favorite outdoor areas and woodlands were more relaxing and restorative than time spent in their favorite built-up urban settings or city parks (Korpela KM et al. 2010).
Encouragingly, those who had the most stress reported the greatest relief from time in relatively untamed nature.
However, those who needed nature the most were the least likely to seek it out:
“the more worries about money and work a person had, the more stressed a person had felt during the last year, the less energetic she/he had felt, the lower was the number of visits to the favorite place (during the last 6 months) and the lower the typical level of restorative experiences.”
The lesson, it seems, is that if you are feeling stressed, depressed, or frazzled, it's harder but even more important to get yourself into the woods.
In a simultaneous Danish study, those “… living more than 1 km [about two-thirds of a mile] away from the nearest green space report poorer health and health-related quality of life … than respondents living closer.” (Stigsdotter UK et al. 2010)
Interestingly, an Indiana University study found that even murals with wilderness scenes were more restorative than looking out a window at relatively green but civilized outdoor scenes … such as a green-lawn college campus featuring scattered trees and buildings.
Participating college students “… rated settings with views of dramatic nature murals, especially those with water, more restorative than settings with window views of real, but mundane nature with built structures present. Students rated settings that lacked views of real or simulated nature least restorative.” (Felsten G 2009)
Then take a daily walk, ride, or paddle in the wildest places nearby … and fill your home with plants and animals!
Berman MG, Jonides J, Kaplan S. The cognitive benefits of interacting with nature. Psychol Sci. 2008 Dec;19(12):1207-12. Accessed at http://www-personal.umich.edu/~jjonides/pdf/2008_2.pdf
Felsten G. Where to take a study break on the college campus: An attention restoration theory perspective. Journal of Environmental Psychology, Volume 29, Issue 1, March 2009, Pages 160-167. doi:10.1016/j.jenvp.2008.11.006. Accessed at http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/B6WJ8-4V42JCB-1/2/335e8930b7333f984a660cdd07941133
Korpela KM et al. Favorite green, waterside and urban environments, restorative experiences and perceived health in Finland. Accessed at http://heapro.oxfordjournals.org/content/25/2/200.abstract
McKinney J. Thoreau Was Right: Nature Hones the Mind. Miller-McCune.com. January 11, 2011. Accessed at http://www.miller-mccune.com/health/thoreau-was-right-nature-hones-the-mind-26763/
Korpela KM, Ylén M, Tyrväinen L, Silvennoinen H. Favorite green, waterside and urban environments, restorative experiences and perceived health in Finland. Health Promot Int. 2010 Jun;25(2):200-9. Epub 2010 Feb 22.
Korpela KM, Ylén M, Tyrväinen L, Silvennoinen H. Determinants of restorative experiences in everyday favorite places. Health Place. 2008 Dec;14(4):636-52. Epub 2007 Oct 23.
Korpela KM, Ylén MP. Effectiveness of favorite-place prescriptions: a field experiment. Am J Prev Med. 2009 May;36(5):435-8. Epub 2009 Mar 6.
Stigsdotter UK, Ekholm O, Schipperijn J, Toftager M, Kamper-Jørgensen F, Randrup TB. Health promoting outdoor environments--associations between green space, and health, health-related quality of life and stress based on a Danish national representative survey. Scand J Public Health. 2010 Jun;38(4):411-7. Epub 2010 Apr 22.