Find Happiness in Your Own Backyard

When I'm having a bad day, nothing lifts me out of the doldrums like a run or a power walk. I always assumed exercise got all the credit for the mood boost, but lately there's been a lot of buzz around ecotherapy, the concept of using the power of the great outdoors to improve mental health. That would explain why I feel so much better after an hour on the sidewalk versus the treadmill.
 
Beyond burning fat and calories, increasing physical strength and boosting energy, here are some of the lesser-known benefits of open-air activity.
 
Silence Your Negative Inner Monologue
 
Can't stop dwelling on a recent fight with your spouse, botched project, financial blunder or another problem screaming to be solved? Maybe it’s time you take a hike--literally.
 
In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, participants who walked in a natural setting for 90 minutes reported far fewer amounts of rumination, which is the medical term for thinking obsessively about negative life events. When left unchecked, one dark thought can trigger another, and another, eventually leading to depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses.
 
When researchers studied the brain patterns of the nature walkers, they noticed less neurological activity associated with mental illness as compared to those who walked for the same amount of time in a city setting. The takeaway? If you have a choice between a stroll through the suburbs or a trail hike, the latter is more likely to improve your outlook on life.
 
Cultivate Creativity
 
For writers, there's nothing better than those golden hours when the words flow effortlessly, but there are also the inevitable lulls when the literary pipes get clogged. I've noticed that I'm most prolific immediately after a run or workout, when the post-exercise euphoria is still surging.
 
It's not just a coincidence. In a 2012 study, psychologists Ruth Ann Atchley and David L. Strayer found that spending time in nature helps to strengthen problem-solving skills. In the study, participants went on a four-day backpacking trip after handing over their electronic devices. When given complex tasks, the tech-free hikers showed a 50 percent improvement in using creative thinking and problem solving strategies.
 
According to the researchers, the study findings show that unplugging from technology and spending more time in quiet nature settings helps to reduce mental distractions, sharpen focus and strengthen cognitive abilities.  


 
Improve Children's Attention Spans
 
According to the CDC, approximately 11 percent of children had been diagnosed with Attention-Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) as of 2011, and more than 6 percent were treated with medication. As ADHD diagnoses continue to rise, psychologists are exploring alternative therapies, including prescriptions to nature instead of pills.
 
In a study by Frances E Kup, PhD, and Andrea Faber Taylor, PhD, researchers analyzed 49 different indoor and outdoor activities children commonly engage in outside of school. Kids who were exposed to the "green outdoor activities" showed a significant reduction of ADHD-related symptoms—including high amounts of inattention, impulsivity and hyperactivity—as compared to those who chose indoor activities.
 
Ditch the Doldrums
 
The next time you're feeling blue, try some green therapy. In a study conducted at the University of Essex, researchers found that depression was reduced in more than 70 percent of people who took nature walks. This was in stark contrast to a group who walked for the same amount of time in an enclosed shopping center—only 45 percent of the indoor walkers reported reduced depression, and 22 percent even said their depression was worse.
 
Improve Overall Mental Health
 
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in four adults suffers from mental illness each year, and a 2011 report shows that more than one in five American adults takes some kind of medication to treat their condition. But could the simple act of going outside provide a natural, and perhaps even more effective, means of improving mental health? Some research suggests it's likely.
 
MIND, a mental health advocacy group based in the UK, has funded more than 130 Ecominds projects. These initiatives have matched thousands of people who have mental health issues (or are at risk of developing them) with a variety of ecotherapy treatments. At the end of each project, nearly 70 percent of participants reported an improvement in their mental health.
 
"Our research shows that a holistic treatment like ecotherapy delivers not only health benefits, but wider social benefits and cost savings that medication could not," Paul Farmer, Mind's Chief Executive, said in a statement. "Ecotherapy improves mental wellbeing, it helps people become more physically active, it gives people the skills to get back into work or training, and it helps people who are lonely or socially isolated to broaden their networks. These are all important factors that can prevent people developing a mental health problem to start with."
 
Next time you're stuck in a funk, the simple act of getting outside could help you feel better on the inside. You just might find that engaging in an outdoor activity—whether it's running five miles, walking around the block or just doing a little gardening—could be just what the doctor ordered.
 
Do you get a mood boost from spending time outside? What's your favorite form of ecotherapy?
Click here to to redeem your SparkPoints
  You will earn 5 SparkPoints

Member Comments

MUSICNUT
Thanks for the great article! :) Report
I've worked on my backyard for two years to make it my slice of heaven. Report
Thank You Report
I still have a long way to go but have started walking outside or just enjoying my backyard more. thanks for article Report
I know I feel better at my family's cottage than I do in the city. Report
I love my backyard garden. I love the magic of green growing things. I love sweating and getting my hands in the dirt when I'm planting. I love slicing into a fresh tomato I've grown and taking a juicy bite of that fresh healthy snack. I love bringing in a bountiful harvest of zucchini. My entire family has mental health issues and I KNOW ecotherapy works. I would no sooner give up my garden (or my cats) than I would stop taking my psych meds. Report
I read this earlier, and than went out for a WALK!! The power of suggestion!!!

As a kid I was ALWAYS outside and though my childhood was NOT ideal it was easy enough to get calm simply by walking it out. As a teen even more so. As an adult life was 1000% better i didn't walk as much. After 3 events including a car accident walking was nearly impossible. I became depressed, gained 173 lbs!!! Speed up the time, and my health is much better with much of the gained weight GONE!! ANd I am back to walking and the depression is GONE!!!

WALK IT ALL OFF I say!! Report
I love being outdoor. I feel much better after spending time outside. I love the sounds of water from creeks and waterfalls and love being at the beach. Report
I do my best to get outside for at least half an hour every day, no matter what the weather (well, not -27F)... I have health issues with both extremes of hot AND cold, but I always feel emotionally and mentally better for having gone outside and being outdoors among the trees, and critters (even if the only critters around are pigeons and squirrels...) Report
Thank you. Report
Gardening and nature photography is what I get a lot of pleasure from. Report
We try to walk outside regularly and camp a few times a year. I miss it when we can't! Report
Nothing improves my mental outlook quite like a long walk with The Kitchen Wolves! Next best is working in the garden, getting my hands in the dirt. In fact, just thinking about it relaxes me! Report
Our happiness starts with us, SparkFriends. Oh yes, it does Report
Great article, thank you. Report


 

About The Author

Melissa Rudy
Melissa Rudy
A lifelong Cincinnatian, Melissa earned a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from University of Cincinnati before breaking into online writing in 2000. As a Digital Journalist for SparkPeople, she enjoys helping others meet their wellness goals by writing about all aspects of healthy living. An avid runner and group fitness addict, Melissa lives in Loveland with her guitarist husband and three feisty daughters.