Hiking in Nature Reduces Depression, Study Finds

It’s certainly not the first study of its kind, but as summer kicks into full-swing, new research on the benefits of spending time in nature serves as yet another important reminder to get outside, like now.

The research, published this week in the journal PNAS, suggests that as little as 90 minutes surrounded by nature can help to combat depression.

The new study looks at what specifically about spending time in nature causes changes in brain activity. The researchers looked at “rumination” a term psychologist use to predict episodes of depression.

"Ruminative thought means something very specific in psychology," Gregory Bratman, a PhD candidate in environmental science at Stanford University and the lead author of the study told the Los Angeles Times. "It is repetitive thought that is focused on negative aspects of the self." For example, one might reflect repeatedly on an embarrassing or disappointing moment or reflect on behaviors or conversations.

The researchers looked at how a walk in nature affected ruminative thoughts on 38 volunteers with no history of mental illness. The subjects took a 90-minute walk in either an urban green space or a loud, busy street. The subjects completed a 12-question rumination questionnaire before and after the walks as well as underwent brain scans to measure blood flow (they were also given smartphones to take photos of their walk to verify they did as instructed).

According to the researchers, “those who went on the nature walk showed reductions in both self-reported rumination and in the profusion of blood flow to the subgenual prefontal cortex,” reports the Times. “They observed no significant changes in the urban walkers.”

"It was quite remarkable to us," Bratman said. "Especially because we weren't asking people 'How do you feel right now?' We were asking, 'How do you tend to think?' To change anything about how one describes how they think is quite compelling."

That doesn’t mean that living in an urban environment may necessarily lead to ruminative thinking patterns, but it does, once again, highlight the benefits in spending time outdoors, particularly immersed in nature.

 Image: Nabeel H



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