Expert: Exposure to nature boosts wellbeing and cognitive function, reduces stress

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Taking a daily walk has become a regular part of life for people around the world looking for ways to safely leave their homes and get moving during the pandemic.

But it turns out that an easy way to boost the benefits of that walk is by choosing a natural setting over an urban one wherever possible.

"I’ve found it pretty surprising myself actually how easy it is to measure these beneficial effects of nature exposure," said Dr. Gretchen Cara Daily, Director for the Center for Conservation Biology and a professor at Stanford University who studies the effects of nature. "I had an intuition that being out in nature made us feel good…I didn’t know that we’d find really dramatic results."

Dr. Daily conducted a study where participants took tests measuring their memory, stress and creativity before and after taking a walk through either a wooded or an urban area. The group that took a short walk through a shaded, tree-lined path showed dramatic improvements.

She said a growing body of scientific evidence shows that being in nature helps in three key ways.

The first is "really improving a sense of wellbeing and happiness with social interactions, sense of meaning or purpose in life. Just a manageability of life’s daily tasks."

Nature also shows benefits in cognitive functioning, such as memory, focus, creativity and imagination.

Access to nature can also reduce the risk of mental illness. "It’s thought that that might be through improving sleep. People sleep better after being exposed to nature and feel much lower stress, and those things together…are really key for keeping the risk of mental illness low," Dr. Daily explained.

It does not take much to experience these benefits.

Some studies have shown that hospital patients with a view of a tree outside their window experience fewer complications, report less pain and have shorter stays.

"You don’t need to be deep in wilderness," she told KCBS Radio's "Ask An Expert" segment. "Little bits of greenery do much more than nothing…any amount that you can fit in is beneficial, there’s no doubt about that."

Even having potted plants indoors and caring for it has been shown to have benefits.

But experiencing nature is easier in some areas than others, especially during the pandemic when people are spending more time confined to their homes and traveling less.

"Everyone’s realizing this nature deficit acutely during the pandemic and the lockdown. If you don’t have good access to nature around you, it’s really a lot harder to get through."

Dr. Daily argued that there needs to be more investment to build green spaces into our cities, workplaces, schools and neighborhoods.