The surprising health benefits of getting outside

Jordana Divon

The surprising health benefits of getting outside

The next time someone tells you to “go take a hike,” don’t get offended. They may simply be expressing their concern for your well-being.

A study out of the University of Rochester suggests an outdoor romp in a natural setting — even for 10 minutes — can significantly improve your mood, increase your energy levels and make you a nicer person.

“Data shows that even 10 minutes outside will increase your feelings of wellness and vitality as long as you’re paying attention to nature,” says Dr. Richard Ryan, one the study’s authors. “People feel they’re more autonomous and integrated when they’re outside, more in touch with themselves, [so their increased niceness] is partly a reflection on that.”

Ryan, whose research focuses on personality development and well-being, started exploring the relationship between nature and mood when participants in his clinical trials reported higher levels of energy and vitality after spending time outside.

“We did a series of studies to really see whether it was nature that was having that effect or if it was what people did outdoors,” he says. “So we controlled for type of activity, who [they] were with and other things that might trigger the energy and we found, over and above all those things, a pretty robust outdoor effect.”

His team set up a series of tests to gauge the degree to which a stroll through the park can lift the human spirit.

In one experiment, participants were taken on either an indoor or outdoor walk while researchers made note of controlled elements like their walking speed and the amount of conversation.

In another test, researchers “beeped” participants multiple times per day to ask them what they were doing and how they would rank their energy and vitality levels. The researchers then looked at the extent to which the outdoors was associated with a high or low score.

Those who were outdoors scored consistently higher on the energy and vitality scale than those who remained inside.

“By using multiple methodologies we were trying to see whether the same effect would hold up across all of them, and it did,” says Ryan. “We saw that when people were around natural things, they feel both more awake and relaxed.”

Although further studies are needed to determine how exposure to the outdoors translates to changes in the brain. Ryan believes our response to nature can be explained, at least partially, by how different being outdoors is from dealing with our everyday lives.

“When we’re looking at things outside in nature we’re attentive, but it’s not really demanding on us in the same way as being at work. Forcing ourselves to do an email or a report really requires a lot of effortful attention,” he says.

But to truly reap nature’s health benefits, you need to dislodge those earbuds and give your phone a break. “Of course, if you’re walking outside with your headphones on and texting, you won’t be paying attention.”

That means taking time — literally — to stop and smell the roses. Not only will these jaunts up your energy levels, they’ll also make you far more pleasant to be around.

“One of the most surprising things we discovered is that people become nicer. We saw they became more generous and exhibited higher social values when they were immersed in natural scenes.”

Think about what this could mean for your workday if everyone got up for a lunchtime stroll in the park: A less uptight boss? A more pleasant commute? 

“We can’t just be around artificial environments all the time. We really need access to the green world,” Ryan adds. 

For dedicated urbanites, living an outdoor life may be challenging, but the benefits to your health and well-being make it a worthwhile investment. So mark this Earth Day in your calendar as the date you start reconnecting with the outdoors. 

Then leave it at the office and go take a hike.