A walk in the woods may be a pathway to peace.
A new study appears to confirm what many people would likely guess to be true: that taking a stroll among the grass and trees is better for your mental health than trudging along a busy highway.
With more than 50% of the global population living in cities, such findings suggest that accessible natural areas may be vital for mental health in a rapidly urbanizing world, according to the Stanford University team that published the study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The study focused on rumination, a psychological term that refers to recurring thoughts about negative aspects of the self. Such behavior is known to be a risk factor for mental illnesses such as depression, according to the researchers.
Study participants who walked for 90 minutes in an area of grassland dotted with shrubs and trees had lower levels of self-reported rumination, according to a June 2015 article by the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. Brain scans also showed those individuals had decreased neural activity associated with mental illness.
By comparison, participants who walked along a four-lane road for 1½ hours displayed no such beneficial effects on self-reported rumination or neural activity, researchers found.
When it came to physiological measures such as heart rate, however, researchers found no significant variations between participants who walked in the urban setting and those who strolled in nature.
“The study reveals a pathway by which nature experience may improve mental well-being,” the researchers wrote. And with 70% of the world’s population expected to live in cities by 2050, access to natural areas “may be a critical resource for mental health.”
Some of the same researchers also conducted an earlier study into the potential benefits of spending time in nature. In that analysis, participants who took a 50-minute nature walk demonstrated reduced anxiety levels as well as improved cognition as measured by a memory-related task.
Similar benefits were not found among participants who walked for 50 minutes in an urban setting, according to the study, which was published in the journal Landscape and Urban Planning.