For those of us who spend way more time inside than we’d like, getting outside is a chance to keep active and avoid cabin fever. When you venture outside into a natural environment, you also receive the added benefit of connecting with nature – and boosting your well-being!

How is nature affecting our brains?

There’s been more and more research into the connection between nature and well-being recently, and gradually scientists are starting to put the pieces together.

Although it’s still not exactly clear why outdoor excursions have such a positive mental effect, experiments have continued to reveal a strong correlation between time spent in nature and reduced stress, anxiety and depression.

In a 2015 study, researchers compared the brain activity of healthy people after they walked for 90 minutes in either a natural environment or an urban one. They found that those who did a nature walk had lower activity in the prefrontal cortex, a brain region that is active during rumination – defined as repetitive thoughts that focus on negative emotions.

Further studies have also demonstrated how interacting with natural spaces offers other positive effects and therapeutic benefits. For instance, calming nature sounds and even outdoor silence can lower blood pressure and reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which calms the body’s fight-or-flight response.

There are also soothing effects that visual aspects of nature can have on our mental well-being. Indeed, visiting green spaces and recognising natural greenery has been proven to distract the mind from negative thinking, helping you reduce stress levels and worry.

It’s not all about greenery

Most of us in Australia live in the city. In fact, with 89% of us living in urban environments, Australia is one of the most urbanised countries in the world.

When we live in places of higher density, due to factors like overcrowding, pollution, and urban violence we are more likely to suffer from mental health disorders. Luckily, our major cities come with their fair share of parkland and trees, providing access to nature. But our urban areas also contain vast amounts of “blue areas” too!

If we take Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth, all of these cities either contain a river, are located next to the sea, or both. The good news, being near water can boost your well-being too!

Studies have shown that people living near water have a lower risk of premature death, and a lower risk of obesity, and generally report better mental health and well-being. Of course, it’s up to us as individuals to get ourselves to the water to reap the benefits – so if parklands aren’t for you, give your well-being a boost by spending time near rivers or beaches instead.

Bringing the outdoors in

With so many of us living in urban areas and more of us choosing to work from home, bringing nature inside is often vital to ensure we’re adequately connecting with our natural environment.

Surrounding yourself with indoor pot plants and flowers is an obvious visual way of doing this, but listening to artificial nature sounds can also have a similar effect.

In a report in 2017 by Scientific Reports, researchers used an MRI scanner to measure brain activity in people as they listened to sounds recorded from either natural or artificial environments. It was discovered that listening to natural sounds caused the listeners’ brain connectivity to reflect an outward-directed focus of attention – a process that occurs during wakeful rest periods like daydreaming.

This happens because listening to artificial sounds creates an inward-directed focus, which occurs during states of anxiety, post-traumatic stress, and depression. Even looking at pictures of nature settings, your favourite nature spot, or a place you want to visit can also help.

Nature and Mental Fitness

Nature plays such a big role in our mental psyche, that we’ve included it in our model. We recommend anything from walking outside for 20 minutes three days a week, to regular three-day weekends in the woods. Whatever you choose to do, the important aspect of the ritual is turning the activity into a habit and part of your weekly routine.

The type of nature doesn’t particularly matter – as we’ve already discussed, finding a green space or walking by the water can be just as beneficial! Focus on the places you find pleasing and try to get away from chaotic urban settings.

By doing so you can gradually increase your well-being and your ability to deal with an external shock (such as losing a job, or a sudden onset of stress). Researchers have noted that people who have recently experienced stressful life events like a serious illness, death of a loved one, or unemployment had the greatest mental boost from a group nature outing.

Ideas for connecting with nature

If you’re still struggling for ideas, any one of these suggestions can help you reap the benefits of connecting with nature:

Book in a change of scenery

Plan a weekend retreat surrounded by nature to immerse yourself in the experience. You could even turn it into a longer holiday for an extended nature-filled break, making sure to take the necessary travel precautions. According to Australia Post’s travel team, approximately one-quarter of all claims received are due to lost luggage or travel documents. To reduce stress, it might be a good idea to consider purchasing travel insurance and taking other safety measures such as using airtags in luggage, safeguarding your passport and storing copies of travel documents in a secure location.

Cultivate a garden.

Growing and tending plants – even in a very limited garden bed or indoor pots – can be therapeutic and offer a natural environment to relax.

Physical exercise in a natural environment

Take part in outdoor physical activities. Walk, jog or cycle through a park. Take a yoga mat outdoors. Plan an outing to a beautiful natural environment. Just remember to prioritise sun protection by using sunscreen and wearing a hat.

Care for an animal

You may not be able to have a pet yourself, but perhaps you can offer to walk a neighbour’s dog. Or you could find an environmentally appropriate way to care for wild animals such as providing water for birds or volunteering at a local shelter.

Meditate or practice mindfulness in a natural environment

Concentrate on bird songs or other natural sounds. Pay close attention to small things – the way a leaf moves in the wind, or the activity of an insect – and become absorbed in noticing every aspect of the activity and appreciating your time in nature.

Reduce stress levels by practising gratitude when you appreciate natural beauty

Pay attention to a sunset, or beautiful scenery, and take the time to be thankful for the chance to enjoy it.

So, what are you waiting for? Getting outside is as simple as exiting the front door. And the best thing about it – it’s free!