Most of us find being outside in nature to be calming and relaxing. But what does the science say? Are there any documented health benefits from spending time in nature?
In short, yes! Peer-reviewed research has found various forms of nature therapy (also called ecotherapy) to be an easy and relaxing way to improve your mental health — and by extension, your physical health.
In this guide, you’ll learn about the evidence for nature therapy, how to incorporate time in natural environments into your routine for better health and wellness, and more.
How Does Nature Help Your Mental Health?
Studies suggest that nature bathing, forest therapy, and related practices can relax your mind and body, lower stress, decrease blood pressure, improve mood, reduce depressed and anxious feelings, boost attention, and increase sleep quality.
That’s a lot! To help motivate you to start spending more time in nature, let’s take a closer look at how each benefit works.
Nature Therapy Relaxes Your Nervous System
To better understand how nature can relax you, let’s first look at the opposite of relaxation. When you’re stressed out, your heart rate and blood pressure increase — this is your sympathetic nervous system’s way of preparing for conflict, also called a “fight-or-flight” state. Chronic stress is associated with cardiovascular and other health problems.¹
When you’re relaxed, however, your parasympathetic nervous system takes over, resulting in lower blood pressure, slower heart rate, and the ability to rest and recover.² Aaah.
This is where nature comes in handy. Two peer-reviewed studies have found that exposure to a forest landscape (walking in the forest or viewing foliage) for 15 minutes significantly decreases sympathetic nervous system activity and increases parasympathetic activity.³
Forest Bathing May Reduce Stress Hormones
Hormones like cortisol and adrenaline are part of your body’s natural stress response. Elevated levels of stress hormones help prepare your body and mind for conflict.
Unfortunately, research suggests that prolonged, heightened stress hormones are associated with decreased mental and physical health and lower resiliency.⁴
One way to help? A 2019 review and meta-analysis including 22 different studies found that most groups engaging in forest bathing had significantly lower cortisol levels compared to control groups.⁵
And a separate 2010 study found that forest bathing significantly reduced levels of adrenaline and noradrenaline (a related stress hormone) in both men and women.⁶
Nature Therapy Can Lower Blood Pressure and Heart Rate
High blood pressure is a risk factor for health problems including heart failure, kidney disease, and more.⁷ And evidence suggests that chronic stress is a leading cause of high blood pressure — an excellent example of how your mental health can also affect your physical health.⁸
In a 2017 review of 20 separate studies, forest bathing resulted in lower systolic and diastolic blood pressure compared to exposure to non-forest environments.⁹ The review also found that forest bathing lowered heart rate, which, like blood pressure, is also affected by stress levels.
Time in Nature Can Improve Mental Health, Depression, and Anxiety
Stressful events and chronically high stress levels are associated with an increased risk of depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues.¹⁰
While the research on nature therapy and long-term mental health benefits is still in preliminary stages, the early evidence on short-term mental health outcomes is promising.
According to a 2019 systematic review of 14 studies, nature therapy significantly increased measures of positive emotions and decreased negative emotional responses, including:¹¹
- More vigor
- Fewer feelings of depression
- Lower tension and anxiety
- Diminished fatigue
- Decreased confusion
- Less anger and hostility
And a 2022 study involving 20 middle-aged men found that forest bathing increased serum serotonin levels, which may help prevent depression.¹²
Exposure to Nature Supports Attention and Alertness
Some neuroscientists have suggested that a lack of contact with nature in childhood is one factor that contributes to increasing rates of ADD and ADHD.¹³
Developing children who spend time in nature regularly may have:¹³
- Fewer traits associated with ADD or ADHD
- Better concentration
- Increased social skills
- Heightened motor skills
Research also indicates that kids diagnosed with ADD or ADHD who spend more time outside in green spaces have symptoms that are less severe and perform better on diagnostic tests compared to children with attention deficit issues who don’t go outside as often.¹³
In a 2018 study that measured the brainwaves of adults walking in a bamboo forest compared to an urban environment, researchers found:¹⁴
- Forest bathing increased alpha waves, a brain pattern associated with alert, wakeful, yet calm states.
- Walking in the bamboo forest also resulted in higher levels of beta waves, which relate to an active, attentive brain state.
In contrast, walking in the city lowered alpha and beta waves compared to the bamboo forest, indicating less alertness, calmness, and attentiveness in study participants.
Forest Bathing May Improve Sleep Quality
Several independent studies have found that spending time in nature can enhance sleep quality and help people stay asleep longer.
In a 2022 study of medical workers exhausted during the pandemic, time in nature significantly increased workers’ sleep duration by over 40 minutes (12%) following the therapy.¹⁵
And a 2019 study of patients being treated for gastrointestinal cancer found that forest bathing increased sleep efficiency and lengthened sleep duration by over 30 minutes.¹⁶
A 2020 trial found that women going through menopause and experiencing insomnia experienced lower cortisol, increased sleep deficiency, less waking up after falling asleep, and increased total sleep time following a six-day forest bathing program.¹⁷
Finally, in a 2022 study of middle-aged men, a weekend forest bathing program resulted in feeling more refreshed and reduced feelings of sleepiness in the morning.¹²
How Does Nature Therapy Work?
According to scientists, the remarkable mental and physical health benefits of nature therapy probably relate to our ancestral history. As a species, we’ve spent over 99.99% of our time living in nature, and less than 0.01% of our history has occurred in modern environments.¹⁸
Accordingly, we need natural environments for our best mental and physical health. Our attraction to the beauty of nature isn’t just a preference but an important instinct that helps us stay well — when we listen to it.
The current research suggests that most of the benefits of forest bathing occur because of stress reduction.¹⁸ Chronic stress is a common factor behind many health problems and diseases, and nature therapy appears to be effective for soothing the nervous system and reducing stress hormone levels.
Lowering your stress levels through exposure to nature also results in additional benefits, including better mood and mental health, lower blood pressure, increased alertness, and more.
Being in nature may also improve your health through other means, including:
- The presence of phytoncides and other plant essential oil compounds with healthy properties¹⁹
- The availability of fresh, clean air²⁰
- Exposure to sunlight for natural vitamin D production and other benefits ²¹
- Earthing or grounding your body’s ability to absorb electrons from soil and other natural surfaces when barefoot or seated on the ground.²²
Interestingly, some research also suggests that there’s an “anticipatory effect” of nature therapy.⁵ These studies found that even planning a forest bathing trip helped reduce stress and cortisol levels before the visit occurred!
How to Connect with Nature for Your Mental Health
In Japan, where forest bathing originated, the practice is usually structured around spending two to four hours in the forest with a combination of activities like walking, standing, lying, sitting, and deep breathing.³ Participants immerse themselves in nature as fully as possible, using all five senses to perceive the world around them.
Fortunately, you can get many of the same benefits without a time-consuming nature trip.
A 2019 study found that spending at least 120 minutes per week in nature increased overall health and well-being — and this effect is achievable using several short visits each day (note that spending up to 200-300 minutes per week provided even better results).²³
Some studies using 15-minute nature walks have demonstrated relaxation and other benefits, so the message is clear: even spending a little bit of time outside is great for your health!²⁴
As far as the setting, you don’t have to be in a literal forest. You can achieve similar benefits by spending time in, around, or looking at any natural environment such as a “green space” (nature park or another lush area), river, or even a garden or flower bed.²⁵
Leave your smartphone and other digital devices at home, or turn them off for the best results. Focus your attention on your surroundings, breathe deeply, and use all your senses to take in the natural beauty around you.
What to Do if You Don’t Have Access to Natural Environments
Whether you live in an urban environment, can’t go outside for some reason, or have similar limitations, you can still use related techniques to get some of the mental and physical benefits of nature therapy.
Research suggests that images, videos, and sounds of nature scenes and wildlife can provide similar relaxation effects to being outside.²⁵
In fact, studies have even shown that for convalescing patients in hospitals, potted plants or a window view of nature may reduce pain and help speed recovery from surgery.²⁵,²⁶
You can also make a healing garden indoors, patio, or backyard. If you can go outside, you can even look up at the sky and clouds and use mindfulness techniques for nature therapy.
Life isn’t always as easy as we’d like it to be. And when your life starts to get a bit complicated, a personal life coach from Wellavi can be there to help you!