Posted on May 06, 2016, 6 a.m.
Not only does daily contact with nature improve quality of life, a walk in the woods may reduce a person’s tendencies to be self-critical.
Natural environments are a potent promoter of physical, mental, and spiritual healing. People can often attain health benefits simply by spending time outside. Jessica Finlay, from the University of Minnesota (Minnesota, USA), and colleagues report that daily access to green and "blue" spaces (environments with running or still water) are especially beneficial for healthy aging in seniors. The researchers interviewed adults, ages 65 to 86 years who lived in Vancouver, British Columbia (Canada), who were experiencing a range of chronic medical conditions. The team found that by incorporating smaller features, such as a koi pond or a bench with a view of flowers, public health and urban development strategies can optimize nature as a health resource for older adults. Such green and blue spaces promoted feelings of renewal, restoration, and spiritual connectedness. They also provide places for multi-generational social interactions and engagement, including planned activities with friends and families, and impromptu gatherings with neighbors. Separately, a team from Stanford University (California, USA) enrolled generally 38 healthy men and women in a study that consisted of taking questionnaires and undergoing fMRI scans before and after going for an hour and a half walk. The volunteers were split into two groups, one got to walk in a grassy area near the Stanford campus that w as lined with lots of trees—the other group found themselves marching around in a strictly urban setting. The questionnaires were designed to illuminate rumination – the tendency to be self-critical, often resulting in anxiety and depression; while the fMRI scans focused on the subgenual prefrontal cortex—prior research showed it tended to light up to during periods of ruminations. Data analysis yielded a rumination score which the team then used to compare people in the two groups. Rumination remained level for the urban walkers but fell on average from 35.4 to 33.1 for the nature walkers. Writing that: “Participants who went on a 90-min walk through a natural environment reported lower levels of rumination and showed reduced neural activity in an area of the brain linked to risk for mental illness compared with those who walked through an urban environment,” the study authors posit that: “These results suggest that accessible natural areas may be vital for mental health in our rapidly urbanizing world.”
Jessica Finlay, Thea Franke, Heather McKay, Joanie Sims-Gould. “Therapeutic landscapes and wellbeing in later life: Impacts of blue and green spaces for older adults.” Health & Place, Volume 34, July 2015, Pages 97-106. Bratman GN, Hamilton JP, Daily, GC, Gross JJ. “Nature experience reduces rumination and subgenual prefrontal cortex activation.” PNAS, vol. 112 no. 28, 8567-8572.