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  • Writer's pictureMark Austin

physiobox June Newsletter: Your Brain on Nature

Hello everyone!

As the warm weather ushers in June, I thought we'd venture into the benefits of getting outside. Of course, we all know that time in nature is good for us, but I don't think many people realize just how profound the benefits are. More specifically, I'd like to draw your attention to the scientifically-backed benefits of spending time outdoors on our most important body part, our brains-- a growing area of study and an often-overlooked element of maintaining overall health and well-being.

Although Calgarians probably spend more time outside than those in larger cities, amid the bustle of modern life, it's still easy to find ourselves a little too detached from nature. We've become accustomed to closed spaces, screens, and artificial light, often at the expense of our mental and physical health, levels of pain, and yes, even our cognition and ability to focus.

Studies have consistently demonstrated that spending time in nature can improve cognitive function, enhance mood, reduce stress levels, and promote physical health. From a neuroscience perspective, nature helps in calming the brain's prefrontal cortex, the region associated with cognitive functions such as decision-making, personality expression, and social behavior. As you'll hear from one of the resources below, nature, even in small doses, also impacts areas of our brain associated with pain; one study found that surgical patients with trees visible outside their windows compared to those who didn't reported less pain and experienced faster recoveries.

A large, well-known piece of research is The Stanford Nature Study. Researchers found that walking in natural environments, as opposed to urban settings, led to decreased activity in areas of the prefrontal cortex associated with mental health issues such as rumination, depression, and anxiety. They also observed that those who simply observed more natural environments compared to urban settings demonstrated improved working memory.

So, how much time exactly do we need to spend outside to get the most benefit? One study from the University of Exeter found that spending at least two hours a week in nature may be a crucial threshold for promoting health and well-being. The research, which involved nearly 20,000 participants, found that people who spent at least 120 minutes in nature per week were significantly more likely to report good health and better psychological well-being than those who didn’t visit nature at all during an average week.

That all said, I also understand that everyone's circumstances are different. Perhaps you are dealing with an injury or mobility issue, or you don’t have a vehicle, money, or enough free time to easily get out of the city on a regular basis. The good news is that even small doses of nature can provide substantial benefits. Even taking a short walk in a local park or spending a few minutes each day in your backyard or balcony can be beneficial, and small steps tend to add up over time. Remember, it's all about creating a routine that works for you, and gradually incorporating nature into your daily life.

Now, let's delve a little deeper into the neuroscience of nature through these resources:


Something to Watch: Tierney Thys - How Nature Engages Your Brain

How does looking at nature impact the way we feel? In this TEDx Talk, Marine biologist Tierney Thys explains how our brains process nature and how she is in the process of unlocking its healing potential, from healing from pain to improving mental focus.


Something to Listen to: Hidden Brain: You 2.0: Our Better Nature

The concrete jungles that we've built over the past century have allowed millions of us to live in close proximity, and modern economies to flourish. But what have we given up by moving away from the forest environments in which humans first evolved? Psychologist and researcher Ming Kuo explains why trees, grass, gardens and flowers don't just brighten our lives — they help us become our better selves.


Something to Read: The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative

We all know that getting outside is good for us, but through what mechanisms, exactly? Author Florence Williams provides a fascinating exploration of the science behind nature's positive effects on the brain. The book delves into cutting-edge research from around the world, from the forests of Japan, to the deserts of Utah, to the city parks of Finland, all examining how exposure to nature can improve mental and physical health. This book is a must-read for anyone seeking a deeper understanding of why and how spending time outdoors can transform our lives.


I hope that this newsletter is a little reminder to get outside and to explore and interact with nature. As the saying goes, 'the best things in life are free,' and few things encapsulate this sentiment better than the great outdoors. Here's to a healthier, happier, and more connected June!

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Wishing you all happiness and good health. - Mark



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