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New Study Reveals The 1 Simple, Free Activity That Can Improve Mental Health In Minutes

A new study showed that teens' anxiety levels decreased after time in a natural setting.
A new study showed that teens' anxiety levels decreased after time in a natural setting. Maki Nakamura via Getty Images

You may have noticed that after a few minutes in the woods, on the lake’s shore or at the river’s edge, you begin to feel... better. More calm, relaxed and at peace. The connection between natural spaces and human minds is hardly a new one. The tradition of meditative zen gardens, for example, has existed for centuries.

Coined in the early 1980s, the term “forest bathing,” or Shinrin-yoku in Japanese, can also be translated as “taking in the forest atmosphere.” Many of us have felt the benefits of being “bathed” in the sensory experience of the woods. As Ginny Yurich, founder of the platform 1000 Hours Outside, described it to HuffPost in an email: “[Being] disconnected from the hustle and bustle of life and soaking in the sights, sounds and smells of the forest gives your body and mind a chance to decompress and unwind.”

But you don’t have to go deep into the forest, or stay there very long, in order to feel the benefits. A new study shows that young people experience a positive effect from these natural spaces almost immediately.

Researchers at Waterloo University gave real-time surveys to 70 youth ages 9-17 in a variety of settings, some nature-infused and others not.

“We mapped out a route in the City of Kitchener, Ontario, where there was really different elements of urban design,” Leia Minaker, one of the authors of the study, told HuffPost. Spots along the route included an urban trail, a green field, an urban lake and a traffic-heavy transit stop. “At every stop, we asked them to fill out a survey that was made up of validated psychological scales to measure anxiety, calmness, perceived restorativeness, mental demand and positive and negative affects.”

Before they filled out the survey, according to Minaker, facilitators instructed the youth: “‘Just stay here for a minute. Take a few deep breaths. Look around. Listen to your environment. What are you feeling right now?’ Just kind of to get them grounded in the moment.”

The biggest differences were in participants’ anxiety levels at both the “blue space” (the lake) and the “green space” (the field) versus the city transit stop. After viewing the lake, the adolescents’ scores on the anxiousness scale decreased 9%. At the busy transit stop, however, their anxiousness scores went up by 13%. The researchers adjusted the data for various factors, including age, gender, ethnicity, mental health diagnosis and social status.

“For the first time, this study actually quantifies the amount of anxiousness or calmness or mental demand that kids can experience based on how you design the urban planning,” Minaker said.

The findings also prove that you don’t have to go very deep into the wild, or stay for very long, in order to experience a positive effect.

The study complements previous research on the stress-reducing effects of being in nature. A 2010 study looked specifically at the impact of forest bathing. Researchers measured the cortisol levels, pulse, blood pressure and heart rate variability of 280 people in their early 20s, before and after visiting both forest and city areas. They found that time in the forest had the effect of lowering cortisol levels, pulse and blood pressure, and had positive effects on sympathetic and parasympathetic nerve activity.

We know that there are other health-related reasons to head outside, such as exercise and vitamin D absorption from sunlight. And, importantly for today’s kids, time outdoors is a great alternative to being on their screens.

Yurich emphasized that no matter what kind of environment you live in, there is a benefit to any time spent outdoors.

“Choosing to eat your meal out on your apartment patio or balcony instead of inside at the dining room table, or going for a simple family walk around your block is just as valuable,” she said. “Dr. Scott Sampson [in his book ‘How to Raise a Wild Child’] says, ‘Nature is everywhere, coming up through the cracks in the sidewalk.’ I think that’s an important thing to both remember ourselves and teach our kids.”

The goal, Yurich said, is to get kids outside as much as possible. The idea of logging 1,000 hours in a year, as described on her website, allows parents to think big, but it also gives them some flexibility.

In her own family, Yurich said, “we try to aim for an average of three hours outside per day.” But this varies with the seasons, she explained: “Living in Michigan, our hours skew more to the spring, summer and fall months with a little less in the winter.” A family living in Arizona, for example, might experience the opposite effect.

“This year long goal allows for these various seasons,” Yurich said, adding that being outdoors is good for the health of family relationships, too: “Our family builds a solid foundation of memories.”

Recent years have brought a slew of disheartening news about youth mental health, prompting an advisory from U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy. The advisory notes that “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness,” thoughts of suicide, and psychiatric emergency room visits are all on the rise among young people.

These increases predate the pandemic, but were certainly exacerbated by its stress. In addition, the stage for our adult suffering is often set during childhood. Data shows that 50% of mental illness emerges by the age of 14.

Another key factor is social media, which can be harmful for kids struggling with their self-image, and frequently serves as a platform for bullying.

For parents, the advantage of making it a family goal to spend more time outside — whether you’re tallying hours or not — is that you’re asking kids to do something positive and enjoyable, rather than simply nagging them, again, to turn off their devices.

Any time outside will have a benefit, as will any connection with the natural world, regardless of scale. Both a hike in the forest and a walk around the block with the dog are good for the health of your child’s mind and body.

While they are away from their screens, kids may discover that the real world can also hold their interest.

“Our brains are wired for the new and novel. Screen manufacturers supply this in droves from the neverending scroll feature,” Yurich said. “But nature provides this too.”

“Being outside is not frivolous — it’s quite necessary,” she continued. “When we are outside we are fully alive and engaged with our surroundings. We are learning — we are assessing risk, we are using all our senses.”

Minaker said that when parents are outside with their children, they might want to consider: “How can you encourage your kids to be mindful in that place?” This could be as simple as asking them to name five things they see and four things they hear, as in this popular anxiety-coping exercise.

“It’s grounding in that place,” Minaker said. “I think you benefit more from it than if you’re distracted, not paying attention, obsessed with your phone.”

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