How a walk in the park changes your brain

Your mood may improve the less you brood

Spending just a short time in nature—such as taking a simple walk in a park—may lead to subtle but meaningful changes in your brain function and improve your mood, Stanford University researchers report in a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Gregory Bratman and colleagues at Stanford focused on whether the neurological factors for brooding could be affected by spending time in nature. Urban residents have an elevated risk of brooding, which is also known as "morbid rumination" and can be a precursor to depression.

  • Using questionnaires and brain scans, the Stanford researchers evaluated whether 38 city-dwellers were more likely to report a tendency for brooding, and if they had certain brain characteristics that lent themselves to brooding.
  • Then, researchers assigned half of the study participants to walk for 90 minutes along a busy highway—with no music or companions—while the other half of the cohort spend the same amount of time walking alone through a park.
  • The researchers found that people who walked near the highway had no changes in mood or brain function. But those who had strolled through the park reported small but meaningful improvements in their mood, and the researchers detected brain changes that suggested their brains had been "soothed."

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The researchers caution that they do not know exactly what led to the changes in the brain—whether it was the quiet, the greenery, or something else.

But the findings indicate that spending even a relatively short amount of time in nature may offer mental health benefits for city dwellers, Bratman tells the New York Times (Oran, MedCity News, 7/22; Reynolds, "Well," New York Times, 7/22).

Thoughts on the story? Tweet us at @eab_daily and let us know.

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