Spending time outdoors has many benefits for mental health. Getting outside in nature, exposing your body to sunshine, and taking part in outdoor activities can all improve mood, reduce anxiety and stress, boost self-esteem, and enhance overall well-being.
How does being in nature benefit mental health?
There are several ways that spending time outdoors enhances mental health:
- Sunshine boosts serotonin levels, which improves mood
- Being in nature reduces rumination and negative thoughts
- Natural spaces encourage mindfulness and being present
- Outdoor exercise releases endorphins that make you feel good
- Vitamin D absorption from sunlight wards off seasonal affective disorder
- Connecting with nature reduces stress and induces relaxation
- Outdoor activities distract from anxiety and worries
- Natural beauty inspires creativity and enhances spiritual well-being
Research shows that being in green space, near blue space (lakes, rivers, oceans), walking through nature, gardening, and participating in adventure sports outdoors all improve measures of mental health including mood, self-esteem, stress levels, depression, and anxiety.
How much time should you aim to spend outside?
There are some general guidelines based on research on the ideal amount of time to spend outdoors for mental health benefits:
- Aim for at least 2-3 hours per week in green space
- Try to spend 20-30 minutes outside per day
- Take 10-15 minute outdoor walking breaks throughout the day
- Expose yourself to sunlight for 15-30 minutes 3 times per week
- Go on a 30-60 minute nature walk 3-4 times per week
- Participate in 30-90 minute outdoor sports/activities 1-2 times per week
Some studies have found that spending 120-180 minutes interacting with nature per week enabled participants to experience significant reductions in stress, improvements in mood, and enhanced life satisfaction and happiness.
Tips for spending more time outdoors
Here are some tips for spending more time in nature if you live in an urban environment:
- Have lunch at an outdoor cafe or park when weather permits
- Take mini-breaks throughout the day to step outside for some fresh air
- Replace your commute, or part of it, by walking, biking, or running outside
- Go outside first thing in the morning to welcome the new day
- Sit outside to drink your coffee or tea when possible
- Schedule outdoor exercise like running, tennis, hiking, or rock climbing several times per week
- Plan weekend outings like camping, boating, or mountain biking
- Garden in your yard or join a community garden
- Take nature photography walks
- Volunteer for habitat restoration work days
Taking advantage of parks, trails, gardens, lakes, and recreational areas near your home can enable you to easily meet recommended time outside even in cities. Seeking out green spaces and blue spaces becomes even more important for mental health for those living in highly urban environments.
Best outdoor activities for mental health
Some outdoor activities seem to be particularly beneficial for improving mental health:
- Walking/Hiking – This is one of the easiest ways to get outdoors. Walking outside provides stress relief, enhances mood, boosts vitamin D, and can be done alone or socially.
- Gardening – Gardening reduces anxiety and rumination, builds self-esteem, and gets you moving. Digging in soil even exposes you to healthy microbes.
- Yoga – Outdoor yoga combines the mindfulness of yoga with exposure to nature. Some studies show it provides more psychological benefits than indoor yoga.
- Forest Bathing – Also known as Shinrin-yoku, this Japanese practice of immersing yourself in nature by mindfully walking through forests enhances mood, reduces stress hormones, and boosts immune function.
- Running/Cycling – Doing cardio exercise outside provides an extra mood boost compared to indoor fitness. Outdoor workouts also increase motivation and enjoyment.
- Paddleboarding/Kayaking – Time spent in blue space floating peacefully on water induces deep relaxation, reduces anxiety, and promotes mindfulness.
Outdoor adventures like backpacking, rock climbing, ziplining, and whitewater rafting can also deliver potent mood-enhancing benefits by blending exercise, social connection, learning new skills, and exposure to awe-inspiring natural environments.
How different populations benefit from outdoor time
Some populations seem to derive more mental health gains from spending time outdoors than others. Here is how different groups can benefit:
- Outdoor play reduces ADHD symptoms, anxiety, and depression in kids
- Nature exposure improves children’s resilience, self-esteem, and physical health
- Kids concentrate better after spending time in green space
- Time outdoors correlates with reduced risk for psychopathology in teens
- Outdoor activities provide social connection and reduce loneliness/depression
- Early nature exposure predicts increased happiness and health later in adolescence
- Office workers are less stressed and more productive when they take outdoor breaks
- Nature walks reduce anxiety, negative thoughts, and rumination in adults
- Hospital patients recover faster with exposure to daily nature videos and window views
- Spending time outdoors improves focus, mood, and sleep in those with dementia
- Nature walks prevent cognitive decline in seniors and reduce care home admissions
- Gardening reduces depression and loneliness in the elderly while providing purpose
Clearly, people at all life stages can boost their mental well-being by spending more time interacting with the natural environment.
Challenges and solutions to spending more time outside
Despite all the benefits, many people still don’t spend enough time outdoors. Here are some common challenges and potential solutions:
|Lack of motivation or enjoyment||Do outdoor activities you find fun like sports, hiking with friends, photography, gardening, etc.|
|Limited access to natural areas||Seek out local parks, gardens, trails, and even just trees/greenery|
|Bad weather||Dress appropriately for the conditions and get outside anyway or exercise inside while looking at nature videos or photos|
|Busy schedule||Fit in 10-15 minute outdoor breaks during the day as a start|
|Safety concerns||Explore safe natural spaces close to home, with others, or in daylight|
|Disabilities||Enjoy the outdoors from a window or garden, or access wheelchair-friendly trails|
With some creativity and commitment, most obstacles to spending time outdoors can be addressed.
Risks of not spending enough time in nature
Frequent interaction with nature is so important for mental health that lack of outdoor time comes with risks including:
- Higher perceived stress and cortisol levels
- More negative emotions including fear, anger, and sadness
- Increased inflammation which is linked to chronic diseases
- Reduced ability to focus and increased ADHD symptoms
- Less resilience in response to traumatic events or life stressors
- Worse outcomes after stressful events like tests or surgeries
- Greater vulnerability to anxiety, depression, and other mental illness
Spending too much time indoors staring at screens and not enough time interacting with nature changes the brain in detrimental ways over time. Making outdoor time a priority guards against these risks.
Aim to spend 120-180 minutes per week outside in natural environments to boost mood, reduce anxiety and depression, enhance focus, foster creativity, lower stress, and protect mental health. Outdoor activities like walking, hiking, gardening, and water sports are particularly beneficial. Overcoming obstacles like weather, lack of time, and access to nature requires some creativity and commitment to reap the extensive mental health benefits of spending time outdoors. Given the risks of not getting enough time in nature, making outdoor time a priority is vital for well-being.