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Nature-Based Activities Improve Mood and Limit Anxiety, New Study Confirms

Woman looking out into nature wearing a red backpack

Ippei Naoi / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Nature-based outdoor activities for 20-90 minutes for 8-12 weeks were most effective for improving mental health.
  • Gardening, green exercise, and nature-based therapy were found to improve mental health in adults, even for those with pre-existing concerns.
  • Research indicated that nature-based activities in groups may promote better mental health.

Increasing the amount of time you spend in nature is often recommended for better health. A new study published in SSM - Population Health supports this common claim with its findings that nature-based outdoor activities can improve mental health outcomes among adults.

This systematic review and meta-analysis included 50 studies and found that nature-based activities improved depressive moods, reduced anxiety, improved positive affect, and reduced negative affect for participants.

While it may not always be easy to engage with nature depending on your circumstances, this research might better inform both personal strategies for managing individual mental health concerns, as well as urban planning, so access to nature for all communities is promoted.

The Research

This systematic review and meta-analysis considered nature-based interventions as activities that were engaged in outdoor green and blue spaces, either independently, or with a group, including parks, lakes, etc.

While this research assessed the impacts of nature-based interventions on blood pressure, blood lipids, and physical activity, limited evidence was found regarding any physical health improvements with participants, but mental health improvements were seen across various age groups.

Limitations of this study include its underrepresentation of research that assessed the impact of blue space on health, as well as the longer-term impacts of outdoor nature-based interventions on mental health.

Nature Promotes Healing

Psychiatrist and regional medical director for Community Psychiatry + MindPath Care Centers, Leela R. Magavi, MD, says, "Nature-based activities may boost individuals’ mood states and alleviate their anxiety; however, it is important to consistently engage in nature-based activities to experience such an improvement."

Dr. Magavi explains that individuals have historically utilized nature to promote healing, as horticultural therapy was utilized to aid traumatized soldiers during War World I. "With the pandemic, many individuals are spending more time in nature than ever before," she says.

Despite its benefits, Dr. Magavi reminds patients that nature cannot replace therapy and medication management, but can be used as an adjunct avenue to bolster mood and heal from trauma. "Adolescents and adults are posting pictures and videos of their hikes and outdoor activities on social media platforms, which is creating a larger trend," she says.

Leela R. Magavi, MD

Nature-based activities may boost individuals’ mood states and alleviate their anxiety; however, it is important to consistently engage in nature-based activities to experience such an improvement.

— Leela R. Magavi, MD

Dr. Magavi highlights, "Individuals with or without physical or mental health concerns were included in this review; it would be helpful to discern how much nature-based activities can aid individuals with medical conditions compared to those without past or present diagnoses."

In sharing how patients have said that they can feel their heart rate and respiratory rates slowing down while they hike or enjoy nature, Dr. Magavi explains how that may allow them to think more clearly when completing day-to-day tasks. "This mindfulness helps individuals of all backgrounds reframe thinking and practice self-compassion," she says.

Dr. Magavi highlights, "Some individuals feel more in touch with their surroundings by exploring and enjoying nature; this can help decrease feelings of derealization or depersonalization, which have unfortunately increased with the pandemic and perpetuated systemic racism."

As an example, Dr. Magavi explains that observing the colors and shapes of nature can divert attention from detrimental rumination related to traumatic experiences when anxious. "Furthermore, time spent in nature and away from screens can reset individuals’ circadian rhythms and allow them to sleep better," she says.

The Mind-Body Connection

Ariel Landrum, MA, LMFT, licensed marriage and family therapist and certified art therapist at Guidance Teletherapy, says, “The pandemic has affected many communities, increasing the need for mental health support."

Landrum explains, "Some clinicians are turning towards nature-based interventions to help address these adverse experiences. Nature-based interventions for mental health are an effective way to improve mental wellness and obtain mental wellbeing for adults."

While mental wellness gains achieved from these interventions may vary, Landrum highlights that they may include connectedness to nature, increase in purposeful behavior, increase in social support. "There are a variety of nature-based interventions that link people to structured and facilitated experiences," she says.

As an example, Landrum shares that the mind-body connection can be improved through social or individual horticultural activities of food growing as it allows people to see where their food comes from and appreciate the work put into growing it. "A community connection can be fostered through involvement in community farming," she says.

Landrum highlights how physical movement and exercise may be even more pleasurable among greenery and water, such as forest bathing or wilderness therapy programs and retreats.

Ariel Landrum, MA, LMFT

Indigenous people are aware that they are affected by, and therefore, in turn, affect, the natural life around them.

— Ariel Landrum, MA, LMFT

Landrum explains that many Indigenous cultures describe the connection they have with all the natural elements of the ecosystem as a kinship bond, as they view themselves as living in familial partnership with nature. "Indigenous people are aware that they are affected by, and therefore, in turn, affect, the natural life around them," she says.

As the pandemic continues, Landrum highlights that some of her clients with chronic illnesses have a limited level of comfort when it comes to outdoor and social engagements, as they know their bodies will not recover quickly from a new illness and they have often experienced medical situations where their pain has been dismissed, misdiagnosed, or resources at a facility were not accessible, even depleted.

For these clients and anyone who is not ready to re-engage, Landrum explains how plants in their homes and online gardening forums can help. "Finding a way to bring the outdoors inside has helped develop the surrounding change needed to prevent stagnation and continued disconnection," she says.

What This Means For You

As this research demonstrates, outdoor nature-based activities may promote mental health improvements. Such insights can better inform self-care strategies for mental health and also planning for public programming. Going forward, accessibility should be incorporated so that nature can benefit all groups equitably.

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  1. Coventry PA, Brown JenniferVE, Pervin J, et al. Nature-based outdoor activities for mental and physical health: Systematic review and meta-analysis. SSM - Population Health. 2021;16. doi:10.1016/j.ssmph.2021.100934