The benefits of being outside
Sara Corcoran (she/her) and
Sophie Lovejoy (she/her)
You really need to get out more… yes, each and every one of you, because most of us are almost certainly spending more of our awake time than is good for us in front of a screen.
If you’re honest with yourself, how much time do you spend in front of a screen each day? Perhaps you get up, have a scroll through social media, scan WonkHE with your morning cuppa, log on for a day’s work, check online for a recipe or to look at the news once you’re done for the day, then settle down for a drama or a movie in the evening. It all adds up.
One study found that 50% of UK adults reported looking at a screen for 11 hours or more a day[i]. Another said in the UK the 2021 average daily mobile usage alone as was 4 hours[ii] – just on the phone!
What we mean when we say you need to “get out more” is that you should spend more time engaging with the natural environment. A walk in nature can have similar effects to meditating. You don’t even have to enjoy the walk to get the payback!
“We found the same benefits when it was 80° and sunny over the summer as when the temperatures dropped to 25° in January. The only difference was that participants enjoyed the walks more in the spring and summer than in the dead of winter.”[iii]
Where do you have your best ideas? We would imagine it’s almost certainly not when you’ve been sitting in front of a screen for hours. Getting out into nature can help your imagination, ingenuity, innovation and inspiration. Creativity isn’t just about artists, writers, musicians… creative thinking is integral to all roles. The phases in creativity were identified back in 1926[iv]: preparation, incubation, idea and evaluation. There’s evidence that being in nature particularly supports the first two stages[v].
Spending four days in nature has been shown to give a 50% improvement in performance on creative problem-solving tasks[vi]. This was attributed to increased exposure to natural stimuli that are emotionally positive, combined with a decrease in attention-grabbing tech. If four days is too much, brain activity evidence shows spending just 25 minutes outside can lead to improvements in creativity[vii].
When the prefrontal cortex is calmed, flashes of insight come to us…. It’s as if there’s an “imagination network” that is activated when we’re engaged in chilled activities, such as watching the birds or walking in a park. This supports mental simulations and can be viewed as the genesis of creative thought[viii]. Nature has the ability to make us curious, more able to generate new ideas and more flexible in our thinking.
Another aspect of cognitive functioning that can be improved by getting out more is memory. Various tasks have been used to demonstrate that nature can specifically enhance working memory[ix]. This is a form of short-term memory used to execute particular tasks. It facilitates planning, comprehension, reasoning, and problem-solving.
In one study, students were given a memory test then divided into two groups. One walked around an arboretum, whilst the other group walked down a city street. Those who spent time in the arboretum showed significantly improved memory and cognitive function; a full hour walking in nature led to a memory span increases of 20%[x].
The cognitive benefits of getting out more also include enhanced attentional capacity. There’s simply too much vying for our attention, and that works against how we’ve evolved – we’re not cut out to be “switched on” all the time. This constant stimulation impacts the pre-frontal cortex, leading to attention fatigue.
You might think that being out in nature provides constant stimulation too. You’re not wrong. It’s just that the way the brain engages with these natural environments is effortless in terms of attention. This means our attention is gently held, whilst giving us time and space for reflection.
There are three main theories:
- The Biophilia hypothesis[xi] says we’re innately driven to connect with nature for survival and psychological restoration. When a connection with nature occurs, it can restore our cognitive capacity.
- The Attention Restoration Theory[xii] states that the natural environment elicits a “soft fascination”, releasing us from attentional overload.
- Finally, the Stress Reduction Theory[xiii] focuses on physiological responses to demonstrate that a reduction in stress induced by the natural environment can, in turn, enhance cognition.
We find nature inherently interesting and instinctively focus on what we are experiencing in natural environments. This provides respite for overactive minds, refreshing us for new tasks. The upshot is that exposure to natural surroundings can improve focus and attention and help dispel “brain fog” by reducing mental fatigue or stress. Ultimately, if you can’t see the wood for the trees, get outside and actually look at trees!
Mood and Wellbeing
In addition to cognitive, there are emotional and existential benefits, in the shape of improvements to mood and wellbeing. We still have a deep connection with nature, and research shows that despite our technological advancements, we need to nourish that bond.
Nature can activate the part of the brain associated with emotions, empathy and self-awareness. Exposure to plants suppresses the sympathetic nervous system, lowering cortisol and heart rate. A daily walk in nature can mitigate depression, and can also reduce anxiety[xiv]. If you’re prone to overthinking or worrying, being in green space might break cyclical thought patterns: a 90-minute walk in nature lowers brain activity linked to negative rumination[xv].
The natural world can also heal. One study showed that just fifteen minutes in nature helped people feel psychologically restored: if walking, it was even quicker[xvi]. Another showed that those recovering from spinal surgery got better faster and needed less pain relief if they had natural light and a view out the window[xvii]. These effects translate to work, as those with a natural view report better job satisfaction and lower levels of stress.
Finally, there’s evidence[xviii] that relates higher empathy and altruism to time in nature, and decisions taken in nature tend to be more ethical. You’ll basically be a better person (and a better colleague) if you get outside. We’re incredibly technologically connected nowadays, but in some cases, relationships are the poorer for that. We’re often isolated in a way that simply isn’t part of our evolutionary make up.
And when you’re feeling a bit lost, perhaps wondering what life is about, a dose of awe might just remind you just how wondrous the world is. There are studies that show being in nature can build a sense of belonging to the wider world that is vital for good mental health and wellbeing. Trees that were around centuries before you, and that will endure beyond your lifetime, or an infinite sky full of stars, can help remind you that we’re a tiny part of an incredible, glorious universe. What can be more inspirational than that?
So, we’ve shared how getting outside can improve creativity, memory, attention, mood, empathy and wellbeing. To be clear, that doesn’t need to involve exercise – just being outside in a natural environment has a wealth of benefits. And by natural, we don’t just mean green spaces. There’s evidence that “blue spaces” (seas and inland water) have similar effects[xix]. It’s not just about what you see, either. Smells and sound can also be restorative[xx][xxi]. A quick caveat, however – you can’t simply change the location in which work – taking your phone or laptop outside won’t have the same effect. You need to engage with the natural environment.
We also haven’t made assumptions about access to outdoor spaces. Perhaps a surprising finding is that it’s been shown that you can reap improvements to memory and attention just by looking at pictures of nature for six minutes[xxii].
Have we persuaded you yet? If so, try building just a bit of getting out more into your day, whether that’s sitting in a garden, a stroll round a park with a colleague, gazing out of the window or even setting a natural image as your screensaver and spending a few minutes looking at that. There’s so much to be gained when you take your thinking outside.
[i] Clayton and Clayton (2022)
[ii] Statista (2022)
[iii] Berman, Jonides and Kaplan (2009)
[iv] Wallas (1926)
[v] Plambech & van den Bosch (2015)
[vi] Strayer (2012)
[vii] Aspinall, Mavros, Coin and Roe (2013)
[viii] Koontz (2019)
[ix] Stevenson, Schilhab and Bentsen (2018)
[x] Berman, Jonides and Kaplan (2009)
[xi] Urlich (1983)
[xii] Kaplan (1995)
[xiii] Ulrich et al. (1991)
[xiv] Marselle, Irvine and Warber (2014)
[xv] Bratman et al. (2015)
[xvi] Williams (2017)
[xvii] Ulrich (1984)
[xviii] Piff et al. (2015)
[xix] Georgiou et al. (2021)
[xx] Li et al. (2009)
[xxi] Van Hedger et al. (2019)
[xxii] Gamble, Howard and Howard (2014)
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