Years ago, as a budding mental health professional, I took a job at a residential treatment center for emotionally and behaviorally challenged youths. I lived and worked alongside teens at a rural camp, where we slept in cabins. The teens hauled water, carried wood, trekked between the living quarters and classrooms, tended the grounds, and stoked the wood stoves that heated our dwellings through the cold winter nights. We set out on long therapeutic hikes and participated in team building exercises in the forest. A therapeutic magic seemed to transpire when those kids participated in physical activities together outdoors.
Years later as a parent, I again recognized the value of getting kids outdoors to work and play. Anecdotal evidence from fellow parents reinforced my belief in the importance of fresh air, exercise, and play to children’s well-being. When my children were young, I noticed a tremendous difference in their moods and behavior when they ran around outside with other kids, as opposed to those dreary rainy days when they were stuck indoors.
Later still, feeling stressed and depressed due to some life transitions, a friend recommended that I join a local outdoor club. I tentatively signed up for a hike up and down Kennesaw Mountain. I felt unsure of my abilities and reticent about joining the circle of strangers gathered at the base of the mountain. But I introduced myself, the group set off, and up the mountain we went. I was out of my league, unprepared physically and mentally, and I huffed and puffed to keep up with the group. From time to time one of the others would wait for me, check to see if I was okay, or murmur words of encouragement. I was exhausted by the time we finished, but as I staggered back to my car I noticed something: I felt fantastic! I was in a great mood, my stress had melted away, and I had gained a tremendous sense of accomplishment. You’d think I had scaled Mount Everest.
Countless research has confirmed the benefits of exercise on mental health. Cardiovascular exercise – physical activity that raises the heart rate – has been shown to increase endorphins, which are chemicals in the brain which transmit electrical signals within the nervous system. Endorphins interact with receptors in the brain to reduce our perception of pain and act similarly to drugs such as morphine and codeine. In contrast to the opiate drugs, however, activation of the opiate receptors by the body’s endorphins does not lead to addiction or dependence. In addition to decreased feelings of pain, endorphins lead to feelings of euphoria, modulation of appetite, release of sex hormones, and enhancement of the immune response. With high endorphin levels, we feel less pain and fewer negative effects of stress. Endorphins have been suggested as modulators of the so-called “runner’s high” that athletes achieve with prolonged exercise. When you need an emotional lift or need to blow off some steam after a stressful day, a brisk 30-minute walk can help. Physical activity stimulates those endorphins which may leave you feeling happier and more relaxed. You may also feel better about your appearance and yourself when you exercise regularly, which can boost your confidence and improve your self-esteem.
Exercise also promotes better sleep, by helping you fall asleep faster and deepening your sleep. Regular physical activity can leave you feeling energized and looking better, which may have a positive effect on your sex life. But there’s more to it than that. Regular physical activity can lead to enhanced arousal for women. And men who exercise regularly are less likely to have problems with erectile dysfunction than are men who don’t exercise.
There is a plethora of scientific evidence to support the physical and emotional benefits of exercise. In addition, two landmark studies have found promising evidence that a walk in the park may provide cognitive benefits and also improve mood for individuals with clinical depression. Finally, a third groundbreaking study brings together the trifecta of exercise, being outdoors, and social support in reducing depression and stress.
The first study was led by Marc Berman with partners from the University of Michigan and Stanford University. This research examined the effect of nature walks on cognition and mood in people with major depression. “Our study showed that participants with clinical depression demonstrated improved memory performance after a walk in nature, compared to a walk in a busy urban environment,” said Dr. Berman, who cautioned that such walks are not a replacement for existing and well-validated treatments for clinical depression, such as psychotherapy and drug treatment. This research is part of a cognitive science field known as Attention Restoration Theory (ART) which proposes that people concentrate better after spending time in nature or looking at scenes of nature. The reason, according to ART, is that people interacting with peaceful nature settings aren’t bombarded with external distractions that relentlessly tax their working memory and attention systems. In nature settings, the brain can relax and enter a state of contemplativeness that helps to restore or refresh those cognitive capacities.
In the second study we will examine, a 2012 followup to the initial experiment, researchers explored whether a nature walk would provide similar cognitive benefits, and also improve mood, for people with clinical depression. Subjects (all having a diagnosis of clinical depression) participated in a two-part experiment that involved walking in a quiet nature setting and in a noisy urban setting. They were randomly assigned to go for an hour-long walk in a woodland park or traffic-heavy portions of a downtown metropolis. After completing their walk, they completed a series of mental tests to measure their attention and short-term/working memory and were re-assessed for mood. A week later the participants repeated the entire procedure, walking in the location that was not visited in the first session.
Participants exhibited a 16 percent increase in attention and working memory after the nature walk relative to the urban walk. However, interestingly, interacting with nature did not alleviate depressive mood to any noticeable degree over urban walks, as negative mood decreased and positive mood increased after both walks to a significant and equal extent. In other words, walking outdoors decreased depressive symptoms whether the outdoor setting was in the quiet woods or the noisy downtown area. The mood elevating effect of exercising outdoors was significant despite the setting.
Finally, a brand new study indicates that what I witnessed in the rustic teen treatment center, in watching children play, and in my own experiences with hiking in a group, are indeed real phenomena. This new finding suggests that group nature walks are linked with significantly lower depression, less perceived stress and enhanced mental health and well-being, according to the study conducted by the University of Michigan, with partners from De Montfort University, James Hutton Institute, and Edge Hill University in the United Kingdom.
Researchers evaluated 1,991 participants from the Walking for Health program in England, which helps facilitate nearly 3,000 weekly walks and draws more than 70,000 regular walkers a year. The study found that group walks in nature were associated with significantly less depression, perceived stress, and negative affect and greater positive affect and mental well-being. People who had recently experienced stressful life events like a serious illness, death of a loved one, marital separation or unemployment especially seemed to see a mood boost after outdoor group walks. “We hear people say they feel better after a walk or going outside but there haven’t been many studies of this large size to support the conclusion that these behaviors actually improve your mental health and well-being,” says senior author Sara Warber, M.D. “Walking is an inexpensive, low risk and accessible form of exercise and it turns out that combined with nature and group settings, it may be a very powerful, under-utilized stress buster. Our findings suggest that something as simple as joining an outdoor walking group may not only improve someone’s daily positive emotions but may also contribute a non-pharmacological approach to serious conditions like depression. Group walks in local natural environments may make a potentially important contribution to public health and be beneficial in helping people cope with stress and experience improved emotions.
So grab a friend or two, lace up your walking shoes, and get outside! Even if you live in the city, an urban walk with a group of companions can elevate your mood and calm your stress. Of course, outdoor exercise with a group is but one tool in a well-stocked stress-busting and depression-lifting toolbox. Treating clinical depression and anxiety may also require other tools, including psychotherapy and/or medication. Talk to your therapist about how outdoor group exercise can be a helpful adjunct to your healthy coping regimen.
Berman MG, Jonides J, Kaplan S. The Cognitive Effects of Interacting with Nature. Psychological Science., 2008 Dec;19(12):1207-12. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02225.x.
Berman, MG, Kross, E, Krpan, KM, Askren, MK, Burson, A, Deldin, PJ, Kaplan, S, Sherdell, L, Gotlib, IH, and Jonides, J. Interacting with nature improves cognition and affect for individuals with depression. Journal of Affective Disorders, 2012.
Marselle Melissa R., Irvine Katherine N., and Warber Sara L. Examining Group Walks in Nature and Multiple Aspects of Well-Being: A Large-Scale Study. Ecopsychology, September 2014.
The benefits of physical activity. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. http://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/everyone/health/index.html