Happiness as Simple as a Walk in the Park

Picture yourself on a peaceful, leisurely stroll. Before you read on, close your eyes – where are you walking? Did you visualize yourself on a peaceful forest path or a beach with crashing waves? Maybe on the gym treadmill or meandering through city streets?

My guess is that most of us will choose nature as our walking backdrop; it provides our minds with a sense of calmness, health and well-being. Studies show that the simple act of visualizing ourselves in nature can improve our mood and outlook on life. Spending time in nature, especially in forests, also can have mood-boosting, stress-busting effects. A simple walk in the park may be one of the best things you can do to meet your body’s physical and emotional needs.

If you’re sitting indoors bombarded by artificial light from the ceiling or from your devices (TV, computer, phone, etc.), there’s also a chance it’s contributing to your lack of joy. Natural sunlight boosts serotonin levels, also known as the "happy hormone,” and ordinary indoor lighting just doesn’t do the trick! Fun fact: Even on a cloudy day your brain enjoys light that is ten times brighter than ordinary indoor lighting. And this has an influence on our mood.

Bright, ultraviolet light from the sun reaches your retina and stimulates the optic nerve, which then sends a signal to the part of the brain (pineal gland) that regulates production of serotonin – regulating mood and energy. And it doesn’t take a lot of time under the sun to feel a difference. Heading outside for 15 to 40 minutes, especially in the morning, can help stimulate your serotonin system and set you up for a feel good day!

(Side note: Sunlight that’s unhindered by sunglasses will reach the brain’s pineal gland more easily – so take the shades off from time to time!)

So far we’ve looked at how walking outdoors helps improve your body’s good mood system, but there’s another side to the story. When you pictured yourself on a peaceful walk in the forest, did you notice this vision left all the urban distractions of cars, phones and loud noises behind? Whether you’re aware of them or not, all those distractions are stressors that raise your levels of cortisol (the “stress hormone”). Too much cortisol can suppress our serotonin levels, causing us to feel highly stressed, fatigued, moody and/or sleep deprived. Numerous studies show that the simple act of looking at the trees can reduce both cortisol and adrenaline levels while raising serotonin levels. According to a study published in Psychological Science, this happens because interacting with nature provides your brain with a break from everyday overstimulation – ultimately having a restorative effect on your attention levels.

But there’s more to nature beyond the visual and hormonal benefits. Next time you’re in a forest, take a deep breath – it’s not just fresh air you’re taking in! Many trees give off a mist of health-giving, wood-based essential oils that act as nature’s own “aromatherapy.” Walking in the forest enhances one’s immune system by inhaling the trees’ antimicrobial organic compounds, called phytoncides, which helps reduce levels of stress hormones (cortisol and adrenaline) and lowers blood pressure. Japanese researchers have also zeroed in on the harmless soil microbe “M. vaccae,” which works as a natural Zoloft – stimulating the release of cytokines; this can in turn lead to the production of serotonin in the mood-regulating area of the brain.

In addition to nature’s restorative effects to combat stress, the outdoors also can motivate you to exercise more and holistically improve your health. Although your cortisol levels increase when you first begin an exercise routine due to your inflammation response, after a week of consistent activity your body begins producing the opposite effects while enhancing good mood neurotransmitters and chemicals like serotonin, dopamine and endorphins.

The other good news about exercise and serotonin is that it doesn't take a two-hour workout to boost levels. Most medical experts recommend 30 minutes of moderate exercise five to seven times per week. Don’t worry about it feeling too tough; research studies have found that fitness goers were able to push themselves much harder when exercising outdoors while having more fun than being indoors. Why? One explanation is that biking and running outdoors is mentally stimulating, whereas exercising indoors may leave you feeling bored or overly focused on how your body feels.

Bottom line: It’s important to spend time in nature to help manage stress and give us a positive outlook. The growing body of research on forest medicine matters for anyone who wants to improve their overall well-being and prevent disease. Yet for many of us, it may be difficult to walk in a forest or another natural setting. The next logical step is to bring the forest indoors. Researchers have simulated the forest with natural sounds, smells and sensations with similar results: reducing blood pressure and heart rate while also increasing the body’s relaxation response. So go for a nature walk, or bring nature into your home – either way, adding a little bit to your day is worth the effort.

Sources:

J Biol, Regul. “A forest bathing trip increases human natural killer activity and expression of anti-cancer proteins in female subjects.” 2008 Jan-Mar;22(1):45-55. r. May 2, 2015. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18394317

Metzger, Chloe. “Five Reasons Getting Outside is Good For You.” w. 29, September 2015 r. May 2, 2015. http://news.health.com/2014/09/29/health-benefits-of-nature/

New York State Department of Conservation. “Immerse Yourself in a Forest For Better Health.” w. 2015 r. May 2, 2015. http://www.dec.ny.gov/lands/90720.html

Posner, MD. Serotonin-Plus Fitness Blog: Outdoors vs. Indoors w. 2015 r. May 2, 2015. http://spweightlossmd.com/serotonin-plus-fitness-blog-outdoors-vs-indoors/

Shannon, Christina, ND, FABNO “Forest medicine: The health benefits of spending time in nature.” November 17, 2014. R. 2 May, 2015 http://www.cancercenter.com/discussions/blog/forest-medicine-the-health-benefits-of-spending-time-in-nature/

hubbub Coach Aaron

Experience: 12-years Corporate Wellness Coaching Professional Certification: Health Fitness Specialist, ACSM; Strength and Conditioning Specialist, NSCA Education: BA Exercise Sports Science