By Dr. Arundhuti Momen, Neurology, Nuvance Health
Take a hike! Learn about how more time spent outside can lead to a healthier, happier and more creative brain.
After spending two solitary years on Lake Walden, deep within the Massachusetts wilds, author and philosopher Henry David Thoreau wrote that “We need the tonic of wilderness…we can never have enough of nature.”
Doctors and researchers today think he may have been onto something, especially when it comes to maximizing your brain health. Thankfully, unlike Thoreau, you don’t need to spend years living in a cabin to give your brain all the benefits of experiencing the great outdoors.
Does it matter what you do?
In the middle of the workday, have you ever found your mind wandering to a beautiful walk in the woods? A fishing trip? Just the slightest bit of vitamin D? The good news is you don’t need to climb a mountain on your lunch break to boost your brain health. The American Psychological Association says that a simple walk through the park has been linked to improved attention, lower stress, better mood, and even greater empathy and cooperation.
The “walking” part of that formula is critical. Before simply settling in on a park bench or under a tree to enjoy the fresh air, consider that being more active can increase the brain benefits of being outside. One study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that walking boosted creativity — participants’ creative inspiration increased by an average of 60 percent when walking (talk about a successful brainstorm).
If you aren’t particularly into the rustle of leaves or birds chirping, consider putting on your favorite album during your walk outside. Dr. Paul Wright and Dr. David Penn wrote about how listening to music affects the brain during exercise, and how researchers found walkers who listened to music had more energy and enjoyment than those who did not.
Next time you’re facing a complex task, can’t quite work through a problem or are just taking a lunch break, take a quick walk outside to clear your mind and boost your creativity.
Timing is everything
Adults spend 80 to 90% of their time indoors, but you don’t need to spend all day outside to feel the brain benefits.
Even minimal amounts of time spent in the fresh air can have incredible benefits for your brain. One study found that as little as 25 minutes in a city park or any green space boosts cognitive functioning and creativity. Researchers do note that the more time spent outside the better. In another study, participants that spent three to five hours a day outside reported greater health and wellbeing outcomes than others who spent only 20 minutes a day outside.
While it may be hard for most of us to carve out even one hour per day to spend outdoors, every little bit counts. A few small breaks spent outdoors throughout the day can give the same benefits as one larger block of time spent outside, and can lead to a happier, healthier and more creative brain.
Increased exercise is a key to a healthier heart, so if you are taking a walking meeting or going for a jog, do your brain a favor and do it outside.
The greener the better
What do we mean by spending time in “green spaces”? People living in the high rises of New York City certainly don’t have the same access to the outdoors as a homesteader in Montana. Those who live in urban environments spend less time outdoors than those in rural environments making green spaces even more vital to brain health.
Luckily, you don’t need to go off the grid to get the benefits of a green space. Any outdoor space with some foliage can give your brain a significant creative and relaxation boost. Although a space away from city noises and distractions like honking car horns like a public park or quite walkway is ideal, spending time in any green space could result in better mental health, improved metabolism and reduction in cardiovascular disease among other beneficial outcomes.
In one study, researchers found that people living in urban environments with more green spaces reported less anxiety and depression along with greater wellbeing. These city-dwellers also had healthier cortisol profiles, the body’s stress hormone, than those living in urban areas with fewer green spaces.
Behavioral and physical brain benefits
We are more creative when walking through a green space because it gives time for our prefrontal cortex time to quiet down– the part of the brain that controls complex cognitive behavior, personality expression, and decision-making. Beyond feeling more focused, relaxed and empathetic, researchers found that spending time outside actually increases the grey matter in the area of the brain responsible for working memory, social decision-making and selective attention.
Get out and get active!
Don’t wait to enjoy the great outdoors! It’s great for your brain, and you’ll feel healthier and happier getting a little more sunshine every day. Here are a few simple tips to find a green space near you and spend some time outdoors:
- Find a state park in Connecticut or New York to spend a day hiking.
- Working remotely? Take a break from the computer to take a quick walk outside, or spend time working in a local park or outdoor coffee shop.
- If you’re back in the office, take a colleague outside for a walking meeting or quick break in the sunshine.
- Bring the whole family along and enjoy some fun activities outside.
- Incorporate getting outside daily into your routine in any way you can – even a simple walk through your neighborhood each day can help your brain stay sharp.
Dr. Arundhuti Momen is a neurologist with Nuvance Health’s Vassar Brothers Medical Center in Poughkeepsie, NY. Spending time outside can be a crucial component to increased brain health, but don’t hesitate to see a physician if you have concerns. Find a neurologist near you here, or book an appointment with Dr. Momen here.