Here’s what an hour’s walk in nature does to your brain

Schon/Getty Images An hour’s walk in the forest is enough to reduce stress.

Schon/Getty Images

An hour’s walk in the forest is enough to reduce stress.

MENTAL HEALTH – Reading in a park, bucolic walk, ecotherapy… Nature is associated with a whole series of benefits for mental and physical health. Published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry September 5, a study by researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, “proves the (positive) causal link between nature and brain health”, according to Simone Kühn, co-author of the study. Just one hour of nature walk is enough to reduce stress.

To prove this correlation, the scientists studied the amygdala, a small structure in the center of the brain involved in processing stress and emotional learning in 63 adult volunteers. They performed a memorization exercise before taking an MRI while answering questions, some of which were specifically designed to create social stress.

Better attention after the ride

Without knowing the purpose of the study, they were then randomly assigned for a one-hour walk. Some of them in an urban environment of Berlin, others in a natural environment: the Grunewald forest, located on the outskirts of the German capital. All without using their mobile phone while following a predefined route. Then they again filled out a questionnaire and had an MRI, with an additional stress-inducing task.

Some participants walked the streets of Berlin, others in the Grunewald forest.
Molecular Psychiatry / Nature Some participants walked the streets of Berlin, others in the Grunewald forest.

Molecular Psychiatry / Nature

Some participants walked the streets of Berlin, others in the Grunewald forest.

MRI scans then showed reduced amygdala activity in the subjects who walked through the woods. The latter indicated that they restored their attention and enjoyed the walk more than those who walked around town. “The results confirm the previously hypothesized positive relationship between nature and brain health”says Simone Kühn.

While amygdala activity did not decrease in urban walkers, it also did not increase, despite spending an hour in a busy urban environment. According to an article in Science alert, this does not necessarily mean that cities do not damage our mental health. The stressful effect may be less potent than other studies suggest. It may also depend on some factors that were not present in this Berlin street. “These results strongly support the salutogenic effects (promoting well-being, editor’s note) of nature, as opposed to urban exposure which causes additional stress”write the researchers.

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