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Study: Nature Walks Lead To Significant Mental Benefits

STANFORD, Calif. (CBS Sacramento)-- Feeling blue? A walk in the great outdoors could do just the trick, according to a new study.

Stanford researchers found that walking in nature could lead to significant mental benefits and even reduce the risk of depression, as reported by Stanford University.

The study suggests that spending 90 minutes walking in a natural area, versus walking in an urban setting, resulted in decreased activity in an area of the brain linked to one of depression's key factors.

"These results suggest that accessible natural areas may be vital for mental health in our rapidly urbanizing world," co-author Gretchen Daily tells Stanford. "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."

More than 50 percent of the world's population currently lives in a city setting. That statistic is forecast to rise to 70 percent as urbanization grows over the next few decades.

Those who live in cities are at a 20 percent higher risk of anxiety disorders compared to people in rural areas. The statistic jumps to 40 percent when analyzing the risk of mood disorders. Research shows those who are born and raised in cities are also more likely to develop schizophrenia.

After discovering the link between setting and mental health, researchers began to wonder if nature itself has an impact on emotion, and if it may be the key to living a healthier life.

The study had two groups of participants walk 90 minutes in different settings, one in a grassland area with trees and shrubs, the other along urban settings with heavy traffic. The researchers measured heart and respiration rates, took brain scans, and gave questionnaires to participants before and after the walks.

Researchers saw notable changes in the brain. Neural activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, a brain region active during repeated negative emotions, decreased for those who walked in nature versus those who walked in the urban setting.

"This finding is exciting because it demonstrates the impact of nature experience on an aspect of emotion regulation – something that may help explain how nature makes us feel better," said lead author Gregory Bratman.

A previous study led by Bratman suggests that time in nature has a positive effect on mood and aspects of cognitive function, in addition to lowered anxiety.

Researchers say it is critical that urban planners and policymakers acknowledge the link between nature exposure and mental health.

"We want to explore what elements of nature – how much of it and what types of experiences – offer the greatest benefits," Daily said.

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