Modern life has made it much easier to become “an indoor cat” than an outdoor one. Days spent migrating from one screen to the next — from the computer to the TV to a late-night iPhone scroll session in bed — are far more common than those spent immersed in nature. This feels less than healthy for a reason: spending time outdoors is beneficial to your health, so by staying in, you’re missing out.
Anyone who ventures outside, especially after hours spent indoors, is likely to intuit that doing so will benefit their well-being. Nature is a vibe, and that vibe is good! But you don’t have to rely on instinct as proof; science shows there are tangible physical and mental health benefits to spending time outdoors. Here, experts explain the research backing the well-being-boosting benefits of nature and describe strategies for incorporating more time outside into screen-heavy routines.
The Benefits of Nature to Physical Health
Nature is no slouch when it comes to being a serious Rx for good health. According to A. Heather Eliassen, ScD, professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, exposure to green space has been linked to improvements in sleep, blood pressure, and physical ability, as well as reduced risks of chronic disease, such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. “Evidence is also accumulating that exposure to green space is associated with lower total mortality,” she says.
One reason for this link between nature and good health, says Dr. Eliassen, is that studies have shown higher levels of physical activity in those with more exposure to green space. Physical activity, in turn, has numerous health benefits, including reduced risk of many chronic diseases. “Green spaces can be destinations for walking or bicycling, as well as space for play, and among children, green-space exposure is linked to more playtime and less screen time,” she says.
Physical activity aside, research supports the idea that just being in nature — i.e. sitting at the beach, having a picnic in the park — is good for you. More research is needed to figure out exactly why this is, but experts have a few theories as to why this could be.
For one, time spent outdoors helps to regulate our circadian rhythms, says Dana Hunnes, PhD, RD, senior dietitian at UCLA Medical Center and author of “Recipe For Survival.” “This can have effects on how well we sleep, our hormone fluctuations, satiety, and alertness,” she says. And of course, good sleep is mission critical for overall well-being, while hormone health helps keep your body’s vital processes functioning properly.
And according to Dr. Eliassen, spending time in nature also helps to mediate our exposure to certain environmental harms, because green space helps regulate heat, mitigate noise exposure, and filter air pollution. Such harm reduction offers protective benefits to our overall health. The only caveat to this, says Dr. Eliassen, is that if pollution is bad to the point of air-quality warnings, it’s best to stay indoors.
The Benefits of Nature to Mental Health
The benefits of time spent out in the natural world aren’t limited to physical health, either. “Better mental health and lower risk of psychiatric disorders with more green space exposure has been observed for both children and adults,” says Dr. Eliassen.
One reason for this may be that time spent outdoors has been shown to decrease stress. “It provides a combination of stimulation of different senses and a break from typical overstimulation from urban environments,” says Dr. Eliassen. “Exposure to green space results in mental restoration and increased positive emotions and decreased anxiety and rumination. Improved mindfulness can result from exposure to green space as well.”
Dr. Hunnes says spending time in nature to boost mental well-being is sometimes described as nature-immersion therapy. “Spending time outdoors is rejuvenating, calming, centering, and can really improve outlook,” she says. Again, the reasons behind this aren’t yet known.
Just how much one benefits psychologically from exposure to nature will vary from person to person, says Aimee Daramus, PsyD, a Chicago-based psychologist who specializes in anxiety, depression, and trauma. But everyone benefits to some degree. “People often feel more at peace and connected in nature, possibly because for thousands of years, early humans lived in natural spaces like caves or plains, and the human brain adapted and changed for those environments.” she says. “When we go to natural spaces, it may be stress-relieving because those are the places that the brain evolved in.”
Green spaces also offer opportunities for social interactions and community engagement, which have been linked beneficially to multiple health outcomes, says Dr. Eliassen. This includes not only mental health benefits such as lower rates of depression, but also physical health benefits such as lowered rates of chronic disease. While these interactions can be as simple as running into a friend while walking your dog or meeting someone new in the park, they can also be facilitated by organizations such as community gardens, running clubs, and recreational sports leagues.
How to Incorporate Green-Space Exposure Into Your Daily Routine
If you’re wondering how you can increase your time spent outdoors when much of your life requires you to be indoors, rest assured that you don’t have to quit your computer job to become a free-solo rock climber in order to stay healthy. According to Dr. Daramus, spending just 15 minutes outside each day can help.
This time outdoors doesn’t have to involve trips to the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls, either. “Studies show that you can get really good results from urban green space, like parks and gardens,” says Dr. Daramus. “You don’t have to wait until you can take a vacation in the woods to reap the benefits.”
Dr. Eliassen agrees and suggests exploring opportunities to interact with nature in your immediate neighborhood. “If there are some green spaces a short or medium distance from home, try walking or biking to the green space to get the benefits of exercise while getting [there],” she says. “Or, find green space you could incorporate into your commute to or from school or work.”
Crucially, however, Dr. Daramus says it’s important to spend your time in nature mindfully if you want to reap the full benefits of exposure. “If you’re not paying attention to the environment you’re in, even three hours a day may not do much good,” she says.
By this she means you have to fully involve your senses, aka put down your phone. Even a podcast or phone call can diminish returns on your green-space investment. “Involve all of your senses: look at something around you that you find beautiful, touch things to get the texture, listen to sounds, pay attention to a breeze on your face, smell a flower or a campfire,” she says. “If you want to be in nature, you really have to be in nature.”