The Great Outdoors: The Benefits of Getting Outside


Throughout the pandemic, it seems that the only thing we have been able to consistently do is have our government-sanctioned walk outdoors each day. For many, this was our brief moment of solace and a (literal) breather from the stressors and worries that the past year and a half has posed.

Anecdotal evidence has indicated for a long period of time that people feel better in nature, and particularly when exercising. It has even been shown that getting outdoors is associated with a decreased risk of chronic diseases in both adults and children. Likewise, spending time outdoors increases well-being in adolescents, and even reduces depressive symptoms. But what effect does the outdoors have on the brain itself?

A recent longitudinal study has revealed that more time spent outdoors has a positive impact on our brains. The study published in The World Journal of Biological Psychiatry wanted to find what happens to the brain structure of people when outdoors and what impact this has on their life. Looking at six healthy participants aged 24-32 years, the researchers used MRI scans of the brain to identify the variability in structure over 6-8 months. Each participant was scanned twice a week, and self-reported their time spent outdoors alongside their physical activity, fluid intake, free time and hours of sunshine.  

Overall, they found that there was a positive increase in the grey matter volume in the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. This particular area has multiple functions which include working memory, planning, abstract reasoning, cognitive flexibility, and an essential role in social decision making (Li et al., 2020). So does this mean that unknowingly we’ve been working on our ability to make decisions in social situations in preparation for the so called ‘Freedom Day’?!

It appears that we can potentially influence our brains plasticity through physical behavioural changes – and over a relatively short timeframe. This is good news as it suggests we can actively influence and alter our mental well-being by simply getting outdoors.

Interestingly, participants in this study lived in Berlin – a particularly vibrant and urban city – yet this still had a positive effect on the brain. It would be interesting to see the scale of effect on the well-being and overall structure of the brain in people form rural areas or even someone such as a farmer or forester who generally spend the majority of their days outdoors.

Recent research shows that people are spending increasingly more time indoors whereas this study would suggest this is potentially having a negative effect on not only our mental health but also our physical brain health. Does this mean that so-called ‘green prescribing’, which actively prescribe getting outdoors as a current therapeutic approach for individuals with mental disorders, could be the future?

Likewise, if anything this is an approach applicable to everyone, irrespective of any psychiatric diagnosis.

Kuhn, S., Mascherek, A., Filevich, E., Lisofsky, N., Becker, M., Butler, O., Lochstet, M., Martensson, J., Wenger, E., Lindenberger, U. & Gallinat, J. 2021. Spend time outdoors for your brain – an in-depth longitudinal MRI study. The World Journal of Biological Psychiatry, 1-7.

Li, X., Xiong, G., Dong, Z., Cai, S., Zhao, J., She, Z. & Guo, Y. 2020. Causal Role of the Right Dorsolateral Prefrontal Cortex in Organizational Fairness Perception: Evidence From a Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation Study. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 14.

Featured photo: The Cheap Shot Photo Show from Pexels.

Edited by Cyrus Rohani-Shukla

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