Studying the impact ‘nature’ has on us is something that is increasingly of interest to scientists around the world, and something that - as someone who spends lots of time outside - has always fascinated me...

By Jo Roberts ǀ Community Engagement Officer, Forest of Marston Vale

Not too long ago, we had plenty of anecdotal evidence, with people almost universally acknowledging that being outside in natural environments makes us feel better. But how does it make us feel better, and how much time do we need to spend in parks or woodlands or on rivers for us to feel the effects?

In 2016, the University of Derby teamed up with the Wildlife Trust for their ’30 Days Wild’ campaign, which has run every year since. The campaign invites everyone to do something wild every day in June, connecting to their natural environment and appreciating the beauty of the natural world. Even when the challenge had finished that first year, people carried on with their ‘wild’ activities – feeding birds or planting bee-friendly flowers.

People were asked before and after the campaign to say how happy they were, and how healthy they felt, and the results were pretty conclusive. Numbers of people reporting happiness and health as ‘excellent’ jumped up by 30%.

It seemed that carrying out nature-focussed activities led to greater wellbeing both physically and mentally, something we now understand not only in terms of general improvements to fitness, but also in brain chemistry.

A study published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America) in 2015 used ‘before and after’ brain scans and questionnaires to find that participants walking for 90 minutes through a quiet green park had “quieter” brains than those who walked near a noisy road. Even more interestingly, they didn’t spend as much time dwelling on negative parts of their lives as a result of decreased activity of an area of the brain associated with depression. So walking in nature was an almost instantly effective way of feeling happier.

Other studies have found that our blood pressure, cholesterol, heart rate and the amount of sleep we get all improve if we spend time in nature. Diseases like diabetes and heart problems also decrease, and it’s very likely that this is a result of positive brain chemicals and better fitness levels.

Different types of experience in nature can also have different effects. For example, spending time in an urban park can lead to a reduction in physical and psychological markers of stress, but spending time in somewhere ‘wilder’ and more natural shows those markers decrease even more. So to really get the best out of nature, find somewhere off the beaten track and totally immerse yourself!

Any time spent in nature (gardening, a walk in the woods etc.) can have positive effects up to seven hours afterwards!

Considering that nearly 70% of the global population is projected to be living in urban areas by the year 2050, according to the UN, it's important to recognize the impact that even a few moments out in nature can have on peoples' overall well-being. Whether it involves planning a weekend camping trip, or simply going for a stroll outside during lunch, sneaking in some time outdoors is probably a good idea.

Other, now-proven benefits of spending time in nature include;

  • increases in self-esteem in children exposed to the natural world.
  • Improvements in the symptoms of ADHD

Advice from experts is to spend time in nature in whatever way suits you – if you don’t want to walk or run, you can just observe the leaves, or the wildlife, or colours of a woodland. Open windows to catch the smells and sounds of the nature on your doorstep.

Or if you feel like being a bit more active, take a walk before you start work or early in the morning, when things are quieter and you can empty your mind.


For tips on how to take care of your mental health and wellbeing during times of uncertainty visit:

If you have been struggling with your mental health through lockdown then local help and guidance is available - download the 'Coronavirus and looking after your mental health' toolkit provided by Bedford Borough Council, Central Bedfordshire Council and Milton Keynes Council.

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