Taking a walk on the wild side (literally) has copious mental health benefits that city walking doesn't, according to a new psychology study

By Charlotte Hilton Andersen
July 13, 2015
Corbis Images

The next time someone tells you to "take a hike," you may want to listen. Getting away from people and out in nature may be exactly what you need to feel happy and healthy, because nature, as it turns out, is a powerful antidepressant, says a new study from Stanford. (Need ideas? 10 Picturesque National Parks Worth Hiking.)

Walking has been proven to increase your lifespan and health biomarkers, but now researchers are saying that where you walk can be just as important. (Is Walking as Good a Workout as Running?) Researchers had participants walk either in a grassy area with trees and shrubs or alongside a busy road. After 90 minutes, the participants had their brains scanned, and the differences between the two groups were stark: The nature walkers' scans showing decreased neural activity in the part of the brain associated with rumination, or repetitive thoughts focused on negative emotions.

Not only does this shed light on how nature effects our emotions, but the scientists also took it a step further to say that this shows damaging effects of urban life. Previous research has found that city dwellers have a 20 percent higher risk of anxiety disorders and a 40 percent higher risk of mood disorders as compared to people in rural areas. Plus, born-and-bred city dwellers are twice as likely to develop schizophrenia. This study may help explain the link between urbanization and increased rates of mental illnesses, said study co-author James Gross, Ph.D.

They're certainly not the first to note the restorative effect of nature. Any hiker will tell you that the mood boost is one of the main reasons they hit the trails. In fact, there's an entire Japanese tradition called "forest bathing" based on the positive effects of being in the forest. (Find out more about The Health Benefits of Shinrin-Yoku.) But the Stanford study is the first to show quantifiable evidence that nature walks can reduce depression and anxiety.

This has broad implications for modern society, said co-author Gretchen Daily, Ph.D. "These results suggest that accessible natural areas may be vital for mental health in our rapidly urbanizing world. Our findings can help inform the growing movement worldwide to make cities more livable, and to make nature more accessible to all who live in them."

But while we're waiting for urban planning to catch up with science (more parks please!), there's a lot you can do on your own to bring more nature walks into your life. Plant a garden in your backyard and take evening strolls through it or rent a community garden plot and walk to it; plan weekend excursions to nearby national parks or nature reserves; or just make it a point to walk through quieter, more wooded neighborhoods and avoid busy streets.

Talk a walk on the wild side-literally-and you'll feel happier, calmer, and healthier.