One-hour walk in nature reduces stress in the brain

Nothing helps me decompress like a walk on tree-lined paths on a sunny day. It’s always felt like a magical cure for whatever stressors are making me feel overwhelmed and I was curious how much was psychological (vs. a true physiological change in my brain). So, I was thrilled to run across this new study published in the September 5, 2022 journal Molecular Psychiatry, which showed how nature nurtures not only our mind, but our brain.

A team of researchers from the Lise Meitner Group for Environmental Neuroscience at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development had similar questions and set out to determine how a one-hour walk in nature might benefit the brain.

The New Research

The team recruits 63 healthy volunteers, who agreed to have their brain activity examined with fMRIs before and after a one-hour walk. Some of the participants were asked to walk in the Grunewald forest, while the others were asked to walk on a shopping street with traffic in Berlin.

Although the brain activity after the urban walk remained stable and didn’t show any increases in stress, the nature walk produced decreased activity in the amygdala (the brain region responsible for stress processing).

“The results support the previously assumed positive relationship between nature and brain health,” explains Simone Kuhn, head of the Lise Meitner Group for Environmental Neuroscience, “but this is the first study to prove the causal link.”

The study authors report that even a short exposure to nature decreases amygdala activity, suggesting that walks in nature could reduce the chances of developing stress-induced mental health problems.

Previous Research

According to the study’s researchers, the findings seem to confirm a growing body of empirical research that has shown how exposure to nature produces cognitive and affective benefits. As the authors explain:

“Spending time in nature can improve working memory capacity, restore directed attention as well as reduce negative emotions and stress. The evidence of nature’s beneficial effects on stress has been observed not only in psychological assessments, but also in physiological indicators of stress, namely in decreases in heart rate, blood pressure, and stress-related hormone cortisol.”


Wendy Burt-Thomas writes about the brain, mental health and parenting.

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