The benefits of Nature and outdoor life on mental health

February 3, 2021 | Surfing
Surfing: a sport that is part of Nature | Photo: Red Bull

We all sense it when we take in a sunset, soak up some sun, or catch that perfect wave. Nature is vital. We're meant to be outdoors.

Research in the emerging field of ecopsychology supports our intuitive knowledge of Nature's physical and mental health benefits.

From promoting exercise to boosting your mood, spending time outside is good medicine for your body and mind.

While surfers understand our connection to Nature better than most, we don't always act on it.

With the frantic pace of life and a million reasons not to head to the beach, it's easy for us to put off or even feel guilty about pursuing our passion.

While it might not be possible to hit the waves every day, even busy people can engage in regular Nature therapy.

You don't have to live on the beach to get the benefits of a natural environment.

Adjusting your habits to spend a little more time in green or blue spaces can make all the difference for a healthy, balanced life.

From expanding home living areas outside to reserving time for outdoor hobbies, there are many ways to make Nature a part of your daily routine.

Nature: spending time outdoors has positive benefits for both physical and mental health | Photo: Shutterstock

Nature and Mental Health: Does Environment Affect Mental Health?

Physical environments connect to mental and emotional well-being in more ways than one.

The spaces where we live and work form the context for our lives, shaping our moods and thoughts.

While other environmental factors feed into mental disorders, it's important not to overlook Nature's role in our emotional wellness.

Studies into the effects of green and blue spaces on depression, anxiety, PTSD, and other conditions overwhelmingly support a positive connection between Nature and mental health.

Spending time outdoors can lower stress, blood pressure, and heart rate.

At the same time, it boosts creativity, mood, and focus. Exposure to a natural environment can also provide:

Relief from pollution: Green and blue spaces are typically less polluted than cities, giving you more access to fresh air and vitamin D from sunlight while limiting harmful toxins.

Opportunities for fitness: People who have regular access to Nature tend to be more active in pursuits like surfing, skiing, cycling, and walking. Increased physical activity limits risk factors for many illnesses of the mind and body and releases endorphins for a natural mood boost.

Chances to socialize: Parks, beaches, and rivers are places where people gather to relax, play with pets, and engage in hobbies. As a result, people tend to come here with the mindset to interact positively with others and hang out together.

Restorative stimulus: Concrete jungles get us down for a reason. By blocking access to soft, natural shapes, light, and sounds, we deprive ourselves of the soothing stimuli our bodies crave. A 2018 UCLA study found that people in Nature reported reduced feelings of isolation, a greater sense of calm, and improved mood.

Greater mindfulness: Immersing yourself in the ocean and feeling part of something larger has a spiritual quality to it. It's probably why so many surfers meditate either on or off the board. Being in the ocean keeps you in the moment and focused on the water's movement, which is a great starting place for mediation to relieve stress and anxiety.

Refuge from negative thoughts: Rumination, or focusing on negative thoughts, is an established factor in chronic depression. Walking along the beach or surfing encourages you to point your attention outward at the world instead of inward, offering relief from obsession and worry.

Outdoor life: running along the beach or surfing encourages you to point your attention outward at the world instead of inward | Photo: Shutterstock

Ecopsychology in Action: How Does Nature Affect the Brain?

Spending time in Nature can affect brain activity in measurable ways.

A 2015 study compared healthy people's brain activity after walking for 90 minutes in either a natural or urban space.

Those who took the Nature walk had less activity in the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that deals with repetitive, negative thoughts.

Gentle Nature sounds also soothe the body's fight-or-flight response by lowering blood pressure and levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

These two bodily processes are a major factor in panic attacks, which explains why Nature therapy can effectively reduce anxiety symptoms.

How Long Do I Need to Be Outside to Get Health Benefits from Nature?

So, do you have to live in a cabin in the woods or a beach-front estate for better mental health?

Thankfully, the answer is no.

A University of Exeter study showed that people who spend at least two hours a week in green spaces are much more likely to report good mental and physical health than those who don't.

Results are the same whether you take all two hours at once or space them out.

Busy People in Nature: How to Spend More Time Outdoors

Do you have time to spend two hours each week in a natural environment?

One of the easiest ways for people with a full plate to get the Nature time their psyches crave is combining ecotherapy with other activities or interests.

Here are a few ideas to help you put yourself at the park, in the yard, or on the waves more often:

1. Take Work Breaks Outside

Most of us have to work at least five days a week, but that doesn't mean time on the job has to be separate from pursuing physical or mental health.

To add some Nature therapy to your nine to five, try taking lunch or coffee breaks outdoors.

Go to a local park or even take a quick walk around the block to clear your mind, engage with Nature, and get your blood pumping.

2. Create an Outdoor Retreat at Home

We often think of our homes as somehow separate from our natural environment, as a barrier against the untamed wild.

Expanding your living spaces outside can make spending time in Nature easier and help you gain a more harmonious relationship with the great outdoors.

Whether you're working with a spacious patio or a tiny apartment balcony, there are plenty of ways to create a comfortable outdoor living space where you'll want to hang out.

Patio furniture, such as a small table set, offers a place to enjoy outdoor meals or sip coffee while watching the sunrise.

To make the porch or deck cozy, try adding an all-weather rug and a patio swing.

3. Schedule Time to Surf

If you're not a sponsored pro, chances are you surf whenever you can find the time.

For weekend beach warriors who would like to be on the board more, making time to surf has to be a conscious decision.

It's easy to feel guilty about claiming me-time for hobbies, but it's all about balance.

Surfing can support your mental health, and it promotes patience and focus, so it's worth the effort.

Surfing more is an exercise in organizing your schedule.

Just like reading the ocean, managing your schedule means controlling what you can and being flexible with what you can't.

When you do have downtime, instead of crashing in front of the TV, try working on your duck dive or meditating to ocean sounds to relax while also supporting your well-being.

Surfing: a sport that supports mental health and promotes patience and focus | Photo: Red Bull

Hit the Waves

As companies build their offices to supply green views and therapists write prescriptions for time outdoors, an important shift is taking place in the way we view Nature and mental health.

Still, professor of psychology Peter H. Kahn encourages greater emphasis on getting out into the natural world and less on just viewing green and blue vistas.

Seeing Nature is fine, Kahn says, but it's "an impoverished view of what it means to interact with the natural world."

"We need to deepen the forms of interaction with Nature and make it more immersive."

So what's keeping you from getting in your yard or out on the ocean?

Make time for Nature in your daily life, and it will pay you back many times over.


Words by Hazel Bennett | Writer

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