We've known for some time that connecting with nature can give you a psychological lift. A new, large-scale study by the University of Michigan, in partnership with three universities in the U.K., goes beyond that. It found that participation in group nature walks is associated with significantly lower depression, less perceived stress and enhanced mental and physical well-being.
The research team evaluated 1,991 individuals who walked with a group at least once a week as participants in England's "Walking for Health" program. They found that walkers in rural areas reported less perceived stress, less negativity and greater well-being than those who joined urban groups and walked on city streets. People who had recently experienced stressful life events like serious illness, unemployment, divorce or the death of a loved one especially benefited from outdoor group walks.
My take: I'm not surprised by these findings. It's well established that being close to nature can be calming, trading the jarring sounds, sights, and smells of city life for trees, birds and forest streams. A Japanese study published in 2010 showed that forest bathing - or taking in forest scenery for as little as 20 minutes - reduced levels of salivary cortisol by 13.4 percent, bringing measurements of this stress hormone down to lower-than-average concentrations. Nature walks can also lower blood pressure and pulse rate and trigger a dramatic increase in the activity of natural killer cells produced by the immune system to ward off infection and fight cancer.