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.


An Invitation to Become Involved with the International Society of Nature and Forest Medicine

The International Society of Nature and Forest Medicine  (INFOM) based in Tokyo, Japan seeks to include in its membership a network of North American researchers, scientists, and practitioners who are exploring the links between nature and human health.

To help raise awareness of INFOM in North America, I am partnering with Alan Logan, ND, a naturopathic doctor, scientist, independent researcher, and co-author of Your Brain on Nature, and Qing Li, MD, PhD, Senior Assistant Professor in the  Department of Hygiene and Public Health at Nippon Medical School in Tokyo, Japan. Dr. Li has conducted cutting edge researImagech on shinrin yoku (walking in nature) and forest medicine in Japan, and is the author of the recently published book Forest Medicine.

The purpose of INFOM is to promote research on nature and forest medicine, including the effects of forest and nature environments. INFOM aims to provide a platform for organizations, universities and governments who are interested in the practice of nature and forest medicine for promoting the effective use of forest resources on stress management, health promotion, and the prevention and rehabilitation of diseases as part of an integrated approach to medical care.

Dr. Alan Logan states, “over the last decade or so, Japanese scientists have been examining the ways in which spending time in nature, and forests in particular, can influence objective markers of stress physiology and human immune functioning. These researchers have collaborated together under the auspices of the Japanese Society of Forest Medicine and have made significant contributions to our understanding of how the natural environment can influence our health. However, the Japanese experts have been working in relative isolation, and in an effort to expand awareness of the work globally, and to examine natural settings beyond forests – i.e. parks and urban green space, or waterside areas, so –called blue space – INFOM was born. If you are a scientist, physician, or an allied health care provider interested in the work of INFOM, please contact us using the email address below.”

Dr. Qing Li, Vice-president and Secretary General of INFOM states, “many researchers from Japan, Korea, China, North America and Europe contribute to INFOM. We welcome your participation and invite you to become involved in INFOM.”

We are creating a database of educators, scientists, physicians, allied health care providers and professionals from other related fields who are interested in networking and becoming involved with INFOM. To be included please email your name, contact information and professional affiliation to hikingresearch at yahoo.com. To learn more about INFOM go to www.infom.org.

Study shows spending time in nature makes people feel more alive

This is a very interesting study that was recently published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology and reveals that spending time in nature makes people feel more alive. Nature is fuel for the soul..