Feeling down? Take a hike!

A new study finds quantifiable evidence that walking in nature could lead to a lower risk of depression.

“Specifically, the study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, found that people who walked for 90 minutes in a natural area, as opposed to participants who walked in a high-traffic urban setting, showed decreased activity in a region of the brain associated with a key factor in depression.”

“These results suggest that accessible natural areas may be vital for mental health in our rapidly urbanizing world,” said co-author Gretchen Daily, the Bing Professor in Environmental Science and a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. “Our findings can help inform the growing movement worldwide to make cities more livable, and to make nature more accessible to all who live in them.”

More than half of the world’s population lives in urban settings, and that is forecast to rise to 70 percent within a few decades. Just as urbanization and disconnection from nature have grown dramatically, so have mental disorders such as depression.

“City dwellers have a 20 percent higher risk of anxiety disorders and a 40 percent higher risk of mood disorders as compared to people in rural areas. People born and raised in cities are twice as likely to develop schizophrenia.”

Is exposure to nature linked to mental health? If so, the researchers asked, what are nature’s impacts on emotion and mood? Can exposure to nature help “buffer” against depression?

Natural vs. urban settings

“In the study, two groups of participants walked for 90 minutes, one in a grassland area scattered with oak trees and shrubs, the other along a traffic-heavy four-lane roadway. Before and after, the researchers measured heart and respiration rates, performed brain scans and had participants fill out questionnaires.”

“The researchers found little difference in physiological conditions, but marked changes in the brain. Neural activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, a brain region active during rumination – repetitive thought focused on negative emotions – decreased among participants who walked in nature versus those who walked in an urban environment.”

“This finding is exciting because it demonstrates the impact of nature experience on an aspect of emotion regulation – something that may help explain how nature makes us feel better,” said lead author Gregory Bratman, a graduate student in Stanford’s Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources, the Stanford Psychophysiology Lab and the Center for Conservation Biology.”

“In a previous study, also led by Bratman, time in nature was found to have a positive effect on mood and aspects of cognitive function, including working memory, as well as a dampening effect on anxiety.”

“The studies are part of a growing body of research exploring the connection between nature and human well-being. The Natural Capital Project, led by Daily, has been at the forefront of this work. The project focuses on quantifying the value of natural resources to the public and predicting benefits from investments in nature. It is a joint venture of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, The Nature Conservancy, the World Wildlife Fund and the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment.”

Coauthors of “Nature Experience Reduces Rumination and Subgenual Prefrontal Cortex Activation” include J. Paul Hamilton of the Laureate Institute for Brain Research and Kevin Hahn, a psychology research assistant at Stanford.

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10 comments on “Feeling down? Take a hike!

  1. I’m not at all surprised at these findings. I crave walking in mountains, beach, forest, any natural area. (Well, not in the extreme heat we’ve had this summer.) But it’s very difficult to find truly natural places to walk around here. And the current administration wants to reduce the number and size of national parks and federal lands. If enacted, these reductions will never be restored and will have devastating effects on future generations.

    When I was a kid, I always felt (still do, actually) that the California coastline should be left nearly untouched, with no permanent housing or commercial businesses allowed, except to serve visitors and for emergency needs. I feel saddened by all these places being owned by the super wealthy, limiting access to the majority of us.

    With this evidence about how healthy it is for everyone to have access to the natural environment, it’s imperative we do what we can to persuade local and national government to limit purchase rights. You can’t walk in nature if nature isn’t there. Or here.


    • Dear Sharon Bonin-Pratt, nature deprived human-being,

      You and me, we have a lot in common as I crrrrrrave walking in natural areas.
      I’ll take you for a walk as I know all the natural spots around here. They are all my “territory”. Some are by the beach, some are in the hills, I particularly like the ones on the ridges where my human can see the views so she is distracted and not pulling on her leash. There are a lot of places to smell and make territory but you will have to BYOL (bring your own leash).

      Freddie Parker Westerfield, CDE
      Canine Dog Explorer

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hiking walking definitely are mood enhancers. Challenge here is that to go into the mountains means 3-5,000 feet elevation gain! Also find menial tasks, working in my garden, getting dirt in my nails, mowing yard all help my brain to “check out” from the daily stuff and I always feel a bit refreshed after…does splashing water on your face produce negative ions?


    • Dear Duffys Dad Rick,
      MENIAL TASKS? Please do not insult task as they are all quite sensitive. This little fact is unbeknownst to humans who do not have as sensitive receptors as we creatures and critters. Please splash your face and apologize.

      Freddie Parker Westerfield, ESCD,
      Extra Sensory Canine Dog

      Liked by 1 person

    • Jacqui,
      I am sure Freddie would agree, seeing as he and other dogs are way ahead of humans when it comes to being eager to get out into nature! If you did a dog poll, you would definitely get a paws up for nature walks!

      Liked by 1 person

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