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Exercising in Nature May Be Better for Brain Health

Results from a recent publication

By Austin Perlmutter, MD


When it comes to the best activities for better brain health, exercise has long maintained a spot on the top of the list. In fact, people who exercise tend to have lower rates of mental health conditions like depression as well as lower risk for developing dementias like Alzheimer's. But recent research suggests that there may be additional brain benefits to be gained when exercise takes place in nature.

In a paper published in Nature's Scientific Reports in January of 2023, researchers had 30 people walk either inside or outside for 15 minutes. Before and after their walks, they tested people's brains using cognitive tests and by measuring brain waves using electroencephalography (EEG) machines.

There were two notable findings from this study. The first was that after walking, people's reaction times were faster. The second was that after walking, people showed an increase in a certain brain response linked to attention and memory as measured on the EEG machine. In both of these cases, the positive effect was only seen in the outdoor walkers.

This research builds on a large body of work suggesting that nature exposure may have positive effects on the brain (this was a major theme in the book Brain Wash) Some of the most notable research in this vein suggests that different amounts of nature exposure may have different effects on the brain. For example, 20 minutes in nature (even in urban environments) has been linked to lower stress, while 90 minutes in nature has been associated with decreased rumination and brain blood flow patterns. A recent study looking at over 61 million people even showed that people with more nearby green space had lower rates of hospitalization for Alzheimer's and other dementias.

There are a few important qualifying points to be made about this study. First, though benefits to brain function weren't seen in indoor walkers, this was only a 15-minute walk, and it was a relatively small sample size. A wide variety of studies support the benefits of any consistent exercise for brain health, so this study should not diminish the value of gyms, walking and other movement practices that occur inside.

Putting all this together, twin lines of research are suggesting that both exercise and nature exposure are good for our brains. Coupling the two might be even better. However, even if you can only get them one at a time, don't miss out!

Looking for more on the healing benefits of nature exposure? Check out this blog

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