by Marissa Reik We are all familiar with the benefits of physical activity. Engaging in a normal exercise routine as part of a healthy lifestyle can optimize immune functioning, boost our body’s energy level, and help keep us younger longer. What is less apparent, however, is the fact that incorporating nature into our exercise regimen can provide additional social, cognitive, and psychological benefits as well.       

The field of health psychology is concerned with the application of psychological principles and research to the enhancement of health and the treatment and prevention of illness. This up-and-coming subfield of psychology approaches all issues of health and wellness from a biopsychosocial perspective, which stresses the connection between the mind, body, and environment. By conceptualizing health in this way, psychologists are able to identify the many factors that contribute to an individual’s sense of well-being. They can then determine how multiple factors interact to produce different outcomes, and can develop comprehensive interventions to be applied on an individual, familial, and communal level for optimal functioning in today’s society. 

Several studies in psychology have focused on the natural environment, and its role in maintaining mental health. In a 2008 study, D.N. Roberson and V. Babic conducted over one hundred on-site interviews with individuals hiking and walking at Medvednica Mountain Nature Park in Zagreb, Croatia. Zagreb is a secluded green space within a large urban center, comparable in population size to Milwaukee. The interviewers were primarily interested in the subjective experience of hiking and walking in natural contexts. 

What they and many others have found was that aside from the obvious physical benefits of exercise, walking and hiking in the wilderness evoked feelings of peace and tranquility in the participants. The interviewees enjoyed breathing crisp, fresh air into their lungs, observing the sounds and colors of the forest, and feeling the mud beneath their feet. Several of the participants described their interactions with nature as a means of stress relief, relaxation, and a much-needed escape from fast-paced city life. 

The study also noted that hiking and walking in nature allowed individuals to “refuel their batteries” for the rest of the week; they were able to appreciate life’s simple pleasures and re-experience the happiest moments of youth. Visiting the park with friends and family members provided opportunities for positive social interaction and conversation often neglected in our modern world. The internal experience of engaging with the wilderness inspired mental clarity, profound thinking, and spiritual epiphany. Several hikers and walkers along the trail described their activities as a healing experience. These men and women came to Medvednica to “forget themselves, or their concerns, or problems.” Interacting with nature was a source of emotional cleansing and rejuvenation, and “throwing out the bad and replacing it with something new” was compared to a form of personal self-help therapy. Perhaps R. Solnit in the 2001 Wanderlust: A history of walking, summarized it best when he referred to walking as “a state in which the mind, the body, and the world are aligned, as though they were three characters finally in conversation together.” 

Another set of researchers in Finland confirmed many of these observations. A 2010 study by K. Korpela and U. Kinnunen launched an investigation concerning the relationship between outdoor leisure and recovery from work stress. They hypothesized that the amount of time spent in exercise and being outdoors would “promote recovery by affecting physiological stress, relaxation, directed attention, restorative experiences, and mood positively.” They collected survey data from employees of five different organizations from diverse business sectors with employees of varying job status. They compiled a list of twelve common categories of leisure activities used to combat work stress and promote recovery. They discovered that among these activities, exercise and being outdoors was ranked as the most effective recovery strategy utilized by participants, followed closely by “time spent in interacting with nature.” It is important to note that although exercise by itself and being outdoors were correlated with experiences of relaxation, only time spent in interaction with nature was associated with both life satisfaction and relaxation. This implies that an active relationship with the wilderness provides not only physical benefits, but psychological benefits as well.

The results of the Finnish study supported the researchers’ hypothesis. Physical environments, particularly natural settings, were shown to be a crucial element in the psychophysiological restoration process. Interacting with nature allowed subjects to establish favorite environmental places associated with emotional regulation, relaxation, and feelings of control over one’s existence. These special sites allow restoration from occupational stressors and their usage is positively correlated with life satisfaction and positive affect among the population studied. 

In addition to the emotionally healing and restorative functions that interacting with nature provides, wilderness exposure has also been shown to improve cognition in studies of college students in Ann Arbor, Michigan. According to attention restoration theory (ART), attention can be categorized as either involuntary or directed. Involuntary attention is “captured by inherently intriguing or important stimuli” and directed attention is “directed by cognitive-control processes” (Berman, Jonides, & Kaplan, 2008). Busy urban environments are taxing on our directed attention abilities because they capture our attention dramatically and require an immense amount of effort to overcome the overstimulation of city life. Conversely, natural environments capture our involuntary attention in a modest fashion, allowing our minds to relax and restore cognitive capacity.

Berman, Jonides, and Kaplan tested the attention restoration theory in a sequence of experiments designed to measure the effects of natural versus urban stimuli on cognitive performance tasks. Participants were assigned to take a 50 to 55 minute walk in either the Ann Arbor Arboretum (a secluded park) or through downtown Ann Arbor, Michigan. They were given a short-term memory task before and after the walk, and their scores were recorded. Experimental analyses supported the attention restoration hypothesis. The researchers found that the performance of subjects significantly improved when they walked through the park instead of walking through downtown Ann Arbor. Interacting with nature not only restored directed attention abilities, but it also improved the mood of subjects and left them feeling refreshed. Furthermore, the researchers found that similar effects could be achieved when individuals viewed photographs of natural versus urban environments. The implications of these findings are important because they illustrate that “simple and brief interactions with nature can produce marked increases in cognitive control.” 

The research that has been discussed up to this point has predominantly focused on the acute effects of brief or weekly interactions with our natural environment. Clinical psychologists have applied these findings to rehabilitation and long-term treatment, as well. Wilderness therapy programs provide around-the-clock residential support to patients in an entirely natural setting. By removing troubled adults and adolescents from their family, friends, and home environments, wilderness therapy “allows clients to focus on what is present, taking care of daily life, and thinking about what one feels now in the moment” (Bettmann & Jasperson, 2007). The outdoor context enables individuals to remove themselves from their maladaptive lifestyles while receiving therapy, education, and skills training in an organic and healing environment. Wilderness therapy has been successful in the treatment of personality disorders (Clark, Marmol, Cooley, & Gathercoal, 2004); insecure attachment styles (Bettmann & Jasperson, 2007); depression and suicidal ideation (Norton, 2009); and in adolescents with emotional, behavioral, and substance abuse problems (Harper, Russell, Cooley, & Cupples, 2007). 

While living in a fast-paced, increasingly modernized urban environment may have its advantages, it can take its toll on our bodies and our psyches. Fortunately, reviews of the recent literature demonstrate that exposure to and interaction with our natural environment serve a protective function and can lead to a multitude of positive health outcomes. Health psychologists have suggested that while physical activity and time spent in the wilderness are conducive to health in and of themselves, combining the two is perhaps the most effective and enjoyable means of improving physical and psychological health. 

In the words of one psychologist: “Imagine a therapy that had no known side effects, was readily available, and could improve your cognitive functioning at zero cost. Such a therapy has been known to philosophers, writers, and laypeople alike: interacting with nature.” (Berman, Jonides, & Kaplan, 2008).

Publishers Note:  Marissa Reik is a student at UWM and worked with me (Vince Bushell) for River Revitalization  Foundation (RRF) as a service learning student. We are most often pulling “weeds”, non-native plants from the river lands, but I am always  looking for connections to the students major  or interest as a fulfillment for the class time  commitment. Somtimes I get lucky and find contributions like this  piece  from Ms. Reik.