Changing Your Mind One Step at a Time

Elizabeth Marglin

by | Updated: December 4th, 2016 | Read time: 2 minutes

Taking a walk offers all kinds of wellness benefits—it’s good exercise, it can prevent back pain, it reduces the risk of heart disease, lowers the risk of obesity and enhances mental well-being.

Changing Your Mind One Step at a Time

Turns out that where you walk, can make a huge difference in your mental well-being. According to a Stanford study recently published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, taking a walk in lush greenery, as opposed to dense urban areas (next to heavy traffic for example), results in affective benefits (decreased anxiety, rumination and negative affect, and preservation of positive affect), as well as cognitive benefits (increased working memory performance). Although the study confirmed nature’s beneficial effect on the brain, it didn’t provide a glimpse of the underlying neurological patterns that explained why.

A second study, by the same author, upped the ante to determine the effects of walking in nature on brooding—a state referred to by cognitive scientists as morbid rumination. Repeatedly chewing on negative thoughts is associated with increased activity in a portion of the brain known as the subgenual prefrontal cortex.

In this study, participants were given a rumination questionnaire before and after their walk. Half of the volunteers got to stroll for 90 minutes through a leafy, quiet, bucolic portion of the Stanford campus, the other half had to take their perambulations next to a loud, hectic, multi-lane highway in Palo Alto. No talking, music or company was allowed.

The nature walk decreased activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, making for a quieter brain. The effect? There was less of a tendency to dwell on the negative. The walk made a slight improvement on the subject’s mental health, confirming the anecdotal impression that walking in parks, open space, and nature can literally change our minds, as it bring us in attunement to something bigger than ourselves. The study suggests that a nature walk offers an easy and almost instant way to improve ones mood, by disrupting broken record type thoughts.

Still to be determined is what aspect of the natural world is the biggest wellness resource: the quiet, the smells, the trees, the greenery or the totality of the whole? How much time do we need in nature for us to feel the effects? Do we have to be walking, or could cycling or running or riding horses provide the same benefits?

Explore these questions for yourself as you seek out green, quiet areas to ponder in—no rumination allowed.