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For a mental health boost, go outside

By Alison Mitchell

Ever had a “bad mood” day when you felt stressed, anxious or gloomy – only to have your spirits lifted just by going outside and spending time in the fresh air and sunshine?

If so, you are not alone! Nature can be a powerful mood booster, as a multitude of studies have shown in recent years.

The latest is a study from the University of Colorado that focused on mental health during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic – a time of lockdowns, job layoffs, economic uncertainty, children learning from home, supply chain interruptions, and fears of becoming ill without effective treatments.

Published in the online journal PLOS One, the study found that participants who spent more time outdoors experienced significantly less anxiety and depression. In addition, more than one third of participants told researchers they spent more time outside during the pandemic than they did before.

“This research shows how critical it is to keep parks and green spaces open in times of crisis,” said senior author Colleen Reid, an assistant professor of geography. “It also shows that, as a public health measure, more effort should be made to put in green spaces and make them accessible.”

For the study – which began in November 2019, just weeks before the pandemic hit – the authors surveyed some 1,200 Denver-area residents to gauge their mental health and perceptions of green space near their homes.

Participants were asked how much green space was nearby, whether they could see it, whether it was accessible, how much they used it and its quality.

The survey was expanded after COVID-19 emerged, giving researchers a chance to see how the pandemic influenced mental health.

“Not surprisingly, we found that the pandemic impacted mental health negatively,” reported co-author Emma Rieves, a graduate student. “But we also found that green space could have a powerful protective effect, even at a time of such extraordinary stressors.”

The study adds to a growing body of evidence suggesting that green space has a measurable impact on health. It has been theorized that humans innately seek connections with green spaces, where the calmness of the environment reduces stress hormones, promotes healing and fends off disease.

Even the sight of green has health benefits. A landmark 1984 study found that when hospital patients had rooms with a view of leafy green spaces, their wounds healed faster and they required less pain medication than those looking out on a brick wall.

May is national Mental Health Awareness Month, a time when people are reminded to take care of themselves and prioritize mental health. Here are some simple ways to relieve stress and improve your mental health:

• Go outside and soak up some “Vitamin N” – nature! It’s great if you can visit a local green space like a park or nature preserve, but even a stroll around the block can be helpful, especially in spring. Listen to the birds singing, watch the bees and butterflies, feel the sun on your face, and be sure to stop and smell the flowers. If you are in a city, head for a tree-lined street.

• Get some aerobic exercise, like brisk walking, jogging or bicycling. Exercise has been found to reduce anxiety and depression, and can lead to better sleep, improved mood, increased energy and stamina, enhanced mental alertness and improved cardiovascular health. Sure, you can work out indoors on a treadmill or a stationary bike, but the outdoors offers so much more.

• Dig in the dirt! Gardening has been proven to be an effective method for combating stress. One hospital study reported that 79% of patients reported feeling calmer and more relaxed after spending time in a garden. In addition to soothing your psyche, gardening can help improve your attention span. And you will end up with pretty flowers, fresh fruits and veggies, or a lovely landscape.

• Breathe deep! One simple thing you can do for mental health is practice deep breathing. Inhale so the air coming in through your nose fully fills your lungs, then slowly exhale through your mouth; it will help slow your heart rate and lower your blood pressure. As with aerobic exercise, you can do it inside, but it’s even better in the fresh air.

• Be social. Science suggests humans are wired for connection and community, and that isolation is not good for mental health. Indoor social interactions have been tricky during the pandemic, making the great outdoors the best place to socialize. Walk with friends, rediscover lawn games like croquet and bocce, or meet new friends by joining a hiking or biking group.

• Dive into a good book. Reading has been shown to calm the mind and relax the body. You can read anywhere, of course. But what could be better than enjoying a good book on a bench in your favorite park, in a beach chair next to the ocean with your toes in the sand, or on your back steps or in a hammock in your backyard?

“Spend more time outside,” advises Rieves. “Pandemic or no pandemic, it’s good for your mental health.”

To learn more about the Colorado study, go to https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article/authors?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0263779

Alison Mitchell is a co-executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Far Hills. She may be reached at info@njconservation.org

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