Nature’s got a lot going for it—and for us. Seeing a breathtaking landscape or experiencing a natural phenomenon typically leaves us feeling appreciative, humbled and filled with awe.
You already know some of nature’s other benefits: it can alleviate depression and fatigue, fight obesity and weight gain, reduce the risk of strokes, lessen stress and even make you more creative.
However, now new research is showing us that if you’re regularly out in the fresh air, you’re not only getting a bigger brain, but you’re actually improving its structure—along with your body image.
And today, with such intense pressures from social media, that’s a pretty big windfall.
Time spent outdoors positively relates to gray matter
The COVID-19 pandemic sent—and is still sending—many of us outside for walks or for activities that we would normally do inside, such as reading or getting together with friends. And while the coronavirus is a deadly threat to our physical health, a new neuroscientific study suggests that the “outside habit” that it instilled in a lot of us has had a positive effect not only on our general well-being but also on our brain structure. Even short ventures outdoors benefit the brain. Until now, it was assumed that the environments we’re in affect us only over longer periods of time.
For this study, which was recently published in The World Journal of Biological Psychiatry and conducted by researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, Germany, six healthy, middle-aged city dwellers were examined for six months. More than 280 scans were taken of their brains using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
The study focused on the subjects’ self-reported behavior during the past 24 hours and, in particular, on the hours that the participants spent outdoors prior to imaging. In addition, they were asked about their consumption of caffeinated beverages, their fluid intakes, the amount of time they spent outside and their physical activities to determine whether these factors altered the association between time spent outside and the brain. To include seasonal differences, the duration of sunshine during the study period was also considered.
The MRIs showed that time spent outdoors by the participants was positively related to gray matter in the right dorsolateral-prefrontal cortex, which is the superior (dorsal) and lateral part of the frontal lobe in the cerebral cortex. This part of the cortex is involved in the planning and regulation of actions, as well as what is referred to as cognitive control. It also most likely affects concentration, mood, the psyche (the totality of elements forming the mind) and working memory.
What’s more, the results persisted even when the other factors that could also explain the advantageous relationship between time spent outside and brain structure were kept constant, such as fluid intakes, number of hours of free time, physical activities and sunshine durations.
The results, therefore, support the previously documented, positive health effects of walking outdoors and extend them with these concrete, positive effects on the brain. Because most psychiatric disorders are associated with a reduction in gray matter in the prefrontal cortex, this is of particular importance to the field of psychiatry and the treatment of mental disorders. Psychiatrists could prescribe a walk in the fresh air as part of their therapies, similar to what is customary for remedies in other health disciplines.
Body image does carry weight
Another groundbreaking study is the first to look at how exposure to nature can help the mind deal with temporary feelings of negative body image, which most of us occasionally experience. The findings conclude that spending time in natural environments provides opportunities for healthy body-image-coping strategies. This may be due to the physical and mental distancing from the sources of body image threats, such as unrealistic appearance standards, mirrors or social media.
The research, published in the journal Ecopsychology, involved 401 participants from the United Kingdom, who were asked to complete a survey about their body appreciation, exposure to nature and “rational acceptance.” Rational acceptance is a coping mechanism, broadly defined as the way people rationalize and keep in perspective any feelings of negative body image that come and go.
The study found that being in nature had positive associations between all three measures in both men and women. It also may help individuals develop healthier thought processes that allow for more realistic appraisals of body-image threats and their future consequences.
Just being in nature can physically take us away from some triggers for negative body image, such as models on billboards or social media posts—things that are usually ubiquitous in more urban environments. And, as we’ve just learned, the restorative qualities of natural environments promote healthier cognitive processes, including greater self-control and a feeling of time passing more slowly, giving us the chance to rationalize perceived threats and keep things in perspective.
So, nature promotes having a positive body image, which winds back around to boosting mental health.
Size doesn’t matter
More and more, our mental, physical and spiritual health appear to come down to an exposure to nature. Science shows that such experiences can be panaceas for a lot of our maladies and problems.
That’s why as a society, we need to ensure that everyone has as much access to natural environments as possible, whether it’s visits to a city park, 10-minute walks in the woods or grand nature-travel experiences.
After all, the size of your nature experience doesn’t matter; they are all windfalls, and they all pay dividends.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,