A Walk In Nature: The Best Way To Improve Your Health

With Summer Comes…

As summer approaches more and more of us are getting outside, soaking up the sun and exploring all the natural playgrounds that Oregon has to offer. Aside from all of the fun you can have while hiking, there are actually many psychological and physiological reasons why a consistent schedule of nature walking can improve long term health and longevity. 

For all of you nerds out there, here are my top reasons why a walk through nature is more than just a good time with friends and family:

Improves your “Aerobic Base”

Most of us have heard of the benefits of high intensity interval training for your heart health, and even lifting heavy weights to improve muscle strength, but what if I told you that building your basic endurance was more important? Walking for extended periods of time (30-60 minutes) is actually the foundation of health and wellness that we build our cardiac and muscle health on. I like to think of our ‘aerobic base’ as the foundational structure of a house – you could build a beautiful mansion on top of a shaky foundation, but it would be at risk of collapsing when inevitable stress arises. In order to bulletproof your health and optimize your recovery, a sound aerobic base is essential. Here are some benefits of a robust aerobic base:

  • Increases your body’s ability to burn fat for fuel
  • Improves your body’s immune system so it can fight off disease and infection more easily
  • Increases blood flow, reduces resting heart rate and blood pressure
  • Lowers cortisol concentrations, reducing stress and improving general system resiliency
  • Allows you to recover faster from high intensity workouts

Don’t stop your strength training and high intensity workouts – but make sure you are adding in 2-3 long walks to your weekly workout routine to build this foundational endurance and turn the dial up on your recovery and resiliency. 

Improves Mental Health and Cognitive Function

Aside from the hormonal releases of serotonin and dopamine (brain’s “happy hormones”) that we naturally get from exercise, walking in nature has additional benefits for our mental health. Trees naturally give off something called ‘phytoncides’ or ‘wood’ essential oils, which have a beneficial effect on our nervous systems, and have been shown to reduce cortisol levels and reduce blood pressure. There are also studies showing that regular walks in nature can improve ADHD in kids (and adults!), and improve feelings of social connection.

Nature walking has also been shown to improve performance from a cognition standpoint. A study comparing students who took a 30 minute walk in nature before a big exam, to students who did not, showed cognitive benefits including an increase in working memory performance, “decreased anxiety, rumination, and negative affect, and preservation of positive affect.” Sounds like a walk outside before a big meeting or presentation can really improve your ability to perform in your day to day life! 

Eye Muscle Movement and Optic Flow 

For most of us our days are spent looking at screens or reading things close up – this causes our eyes to “converge” or come together for long periods of time. Just like our muscles get stiff and ‘tight’ when we don’t move them frequently, the muscles of our eyes get tight when they are stuck in this shortened position! When we take walks in nature we are forced to focus our attention at a distance, which allows our eye muscles to elongate and “diverge”, essentially stretching them out. Our nervous system’s general tension (especially in the neck and upper traps) tends to follow the tension in our eyes – so if you are staring at a screen for many hours consider how this is affecting that neck and shoulder stiffness.

My addition to your physical therapy homework: next time you are on a walk in nature, attempt to focus your eyes on the tree line above, or to spot flowers and trees from afar to really stretch out those eye muscles and give them a break from screens!

The idea of ‘optic flow’ is a fascinating thought process made popular by the great Dr. Andrew Huberman. Optic flow is the motion generated at the eye that is moving relative to the environment. Basically, when you are walking, things that are stationary are going by you – your brain is then able to figure out that you are moving through space! This is a combination of many senses including visual (eyes), vestibular (balance/acceleration), and proprioception (the motion of our joints), but this concept of optic flow is an important part of stimulating our nervous systems to give more information to our brain about what our body is doing. Research has shown that the optic flow that happens when we are moving through space can be beneficial for improving concentration and the release of compounds that stimulate neurons in the brain. Pretty cool how just getting our eyes to move more regularly can affect such an important part of our anatomy!

Reduces Risk of Disease

There are various studies that highlight the benefits of a daily nature walk with reduction in the risk of disease processes that plague many Americans including high blood pressure and cancer. 

In a study looking at the link between nature and cancer, people who took two long walks in nature over two consecutive days had an increase in their cancer-fighting cells, known as NK cells, of 50 percent and an increase in the activity of these cells by 56 percent. In addition, the activity levels of the cells remained high for a month.”

Richard Louv, an author and researcher, said “Today the long-held belief that nature has a direct positive impact on human health is making a transition from theory to evidence and from evidence to action. Certain findings have become so convincing that some mainstream health providers and organizations have begun to promote nature therapy for an array of illnesses and for disease prevention. And many of us, without having a name for it, are using the nature tonic. We are, in essence, self-medicating with an inexpensive and unusually convenient drug substitute. Let’s call it vitamin N—for Nature.”

Vitamin N

I hope that we can all recognize the importance of connecting back to our evolutionary roots and get outside in Nature every day for some much needed Vitamin N. Let’s all challenge ourselves to get outside at least 30 minutes per day for the next 30 days – I know I will be prescribing this all important supplement for all of my clients, and even better – it’s free and abundant 🙂 

Written by Dr. Mariel Hammond DPT, Doctor of Physical Therapy at Well Balanced