Hiking in Nature = Improved Mental Health?

By Mark A. Ellison, Ed.D.

Fall is a wonderful time to be in nature. The leaves are turning radiant hues, the air is crisp, and the sky is a deep blue. Nature has even more umph to refresh our mind, body and spirit.

Shining Rock Wilderness in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina

Shining Rock Wilderness in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina

Researchers at Stanford University recently found that walking in nature is not only awe inspiring but provides measurable mental health benefits and may even reduce the risk of depression. Specifically, the study found that people who walked in a nature area for 90 minutes compared to participants walking in an urban area, had decreased activity in the brain associated with a key factor for depression. “These findings are important because they are consistent with, but do not yet prove, a causal link between increasing urbanization and increased rates of mental illness,” said co-author James Gross, a professor of psychology at Stanford.

The study authors note that city dwellers have a 20 percent higher risk of anxiety disorders as well as a 40 percent higher risk of mood disorders compared to people living in rural settings. People born and raised in cities are twice as likely to develop schizophrenia.

This research is important as urban planners identify how to best use limited resources, and national and state parks grapple with how to manage the demands of a growing population on finite public lands. People who live in settings that have constant noise and little nature need a place to escape. It is also critical that children are introduced to nature and learn how to utilize it for maintaining good mental and physical health throughout life.20151006_180640_resized

Continued research on the connections between nature and human well-being are vital. Important work is being done by The Natural Capital Project which is focused 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.

Being able to quantify and predict the benefits that nature offers to human health may be the strongest case that can be made for preserving nature. A world void of places to escape in nature is truly a depressing concept, one hopefully we will never have to experience. Our mental health hinges on it.

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Will Living in a Greener Urban Setting Make You Happier?

A well-known song encourages us to “don’t worry, be happy.” When it comes to living in cities, we better worry about the quality of our green space if we want to be happy according to recent research.  A study by researchers Mathew White, Ian Alcock, Benedict W. Wheeler, and Michael H. Depledg at the European Centre for Environment and Human Health published in the April 2013 journal Psychological Science finds that people who live in areas with more green space show significantly lower mental distress (GHQ scores) and significantly higher well-being (life satisfaction). The study draws on over 18 years of data from 10,000 participants.

Flowers in Memorial Gardens near downtown Concord, NC offer an escape from the city.

Flowers in Memorial Gardens near downtown Concord, NC offer an escape from the city.
Photo by Mark Ellison

The analysis also  compared the beneficial effects of green space with other factors which influence well-being.  Living in an area with higher levels of green space was associated with improvements in well-being indicators similar to approximately a  third of that gained from being married, or a tenth as large as being employed vs. unemployed.

The authors describe urbanization as a threat to mental health and well-being. The effects at the individual level are small, but the potential benefits at a population level could be significant based on the results of this research, and should be an important consideration in policies aiming to protect and promote urban green spaces for well-being.

Living in urban areas has been found in numerous studies to be stressful and to negatively impact health. With over half the world’s population now living in urban settings finding ways to improve the livability of urban settings should be a high priority. Could increasing the happiness level of residents of an urban area be impacted simply by adding more green space? If people are happier, would they also be more inclined to be more considerate, and less hostile towards others?

Well-being and quality of life are important measures of the livability of a region. Urban planning should include ample green space to provide for the mental health and well-being of its current and future population. Failing to do so could have a negative impact on continued growth of a region (people do not want to live where the quality of life is low), as well as on public health.

So, yes, be happy. It just may be easier to be that way if you are in nature.

The Appalachian Trail is a thread of nature nurturing our mental and physical health

The Appalachian Trail (AT) is a 2,184 mile footpath extending from Springer Mountain, Georgia to Mt. Katahdin, Maine. The AT makes accessible the beauty of nature to millions of people, many of whom are seeking a refuge from the noise, numbing pulse, and pollution of urban life. In many ways the AT symbolizes the quest for balance, and freedom from the constraints of a technologically saturated world that fiercely demands our undivided attention.

The Roan Highlands of North Carolina & Tennessee as seen from the Appalachian Trail (USA) Photo by Mark Ellison

The importance of the AT and other trails like it for our mental and physical health is evidenced by the veracity with which people defend it. In the recently published book Stand up that Mountain, author Jay Leutze shares his account of helping to save the AT viewshed on Hump Mountain, part of the magnificent Highlands of Roan in the southern Appalachian mountains. Leutze experienced the value of unspoiled nature for mental and physical health, and fought to preserve it. Nature offers us escape, and there are fewer places to find it with the encroachment of development into many of our forests. The AT is particularly vulnerable to development as a linear path with only a limited amount of land protected adjacent to it. Fortunately, Leutze and his colleagues at the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy have taken on this battle.

The mental health benefits of spending time it nature make it imperative that we protect these spaces. Individuals who spend time in nature experience fewer mental health issues. Forest therapy has been useful in treating depression.  Another mental health benefit of nature contact is that it provides a setting for leisure activities that help in detaching from work. Research has shown that mentally disengaging or “switching off” results in higher levels of psychological well-being, more contentment and cheerfulness in the workplace, less fatigue, helping employees protect against the developing symptoms of psychological strain in response to stressful work situations, and more proactive work behavior. Time in an urban setting does not provide the same benefits.

Take time this autumn to meander along your favorite hiking trail, perhaps the AT, to get away from it all. Ponder how nature helps to preserve health and the importance of protecting its beauty and resources for future generations.  Ask yourself, how can I stand up to protect this? After all, if we only take from the earth, eventually there will be nothing left. Where will we turn then?