Screen-addicted Americans are more stressed out and distracted than ever. And nope, there’s no app for that. But there is a radically simple remedy: get outside whenever you can. And when you can't, research has found, just looking at images of nature will help you to perform significantly better on cognitive tests and feel better.
The Nature Cure
In our December issue, Florence Williams travels to the deep woods of Japan, where researchers are backing up the surprising theory that nature can lower your blood pressure, fight off depression, beat back stress—and even prevent cancer.
The Outside RX: Temper Your Screen Time
What happens to a mind in constant motion? That’s a question we seem intent on answering, one laptop and DVR at a time. In a now famous, years-long study of employees at the Boston Consulting Group, led by Harvard Business School professor Leslie Perlow, 26 percent of participants admitted to sleeping with their smartphones within reach.
The Outside RX: Get Dirty
As hunter-gatherers and then settled farmers, humans touched, breathed, swallowed, and co-evolved with a broad range of microbes, says Graham Rook, professor emeritus of medical microbiology at University College London. These bugs—from gut flora and probiotics to bacteria and parasites—came to play an important role in regulating our immune system. They became, Rook says, our “old friends.”
The Outside RX: Go Blue
Greening our lives is a good start, but we need to blue them, too. New research suggests that water may be a key element in the natural world for psychological well-being. When researchers in Exeter, England, showed a group of adults a series of 120 photos of urban and natural scenes both with water (rivers, lakes, oceans) and without, the subjects greatly preferred the images with water, even if those scenes also showed buildings and streets.
The Outside RX: Train Naked
These days, it’s the rare outdoor athlete who isn’t plugged into something: heart-rate monitor, iPod, power meter, GPS unit.... The assumption is that these gadgets improve our performance or experience or both. But there’s good reason to question that.
The Outside RX: Find Your Rhythm
Human sleep-wake cycles are set mostly by the sun. Light levels filtered through the retina send messages to the pineal gland, which pumps out or dials back on melatonin, the hormone associated with sleep regulation. Without sufficient exposure, melatonin levels are disordered, and our body’s innate rhythms are thrown out of whack.
The Outside RX: Take Five—Minutes or Days
Five minutes is all that’s required to achieve the minimum effective dose of nature immersion to raise your spirits. So says Jules Pretty, professor of environment and society at the University of Essex, who synthesized the results of nearly a dozen studies for a comprehensive 2010 review of nature’s effects on the body.
In a 2011 study of 128 college runners, researchers found that "surrounding greenness" was an indicator of better athletic performance. Other studies have shown that exercising in nature results in less fatigue, reduced anxiety, less hostility, more positive thoughts, and an overall feeling of invigoration. Read more on how research supports the therapeutic benefits of playing outside.
Next Up: The Nature Cure