Lifestyle

Why the Outdoors Is So Good for Your Brain

by Emily Hessney LynchOct 6, 2022

Conversations about mental health are gradually being destigmatized and it’s high time. With celebrities like Lizzo, Jonathan Van Ness, Naomi Osaka, and so many others speaking out about their own mental health struggles, it’s becoming far more normal to talk about the mental health challenges that are so much more common than we once thought. Among the many available resources for our mental health, there’s one that remains widely accessible and packs a significant positive impact: spending time outside. The Campspot Outdoor Almanac, a biannual publication with key dates, information, and stats on outdoor activities, found that 96% of campers say that camping improves their mental health. Below, we explore the mental health benefits of being outdoors. Let’s dive in!

How the Outdoors Affects the Brain 

A group of campers enjoy beverages outside of an RV.

Many studies in recent years have shown significant mental health benefits from spending time outside. According to researchers, such as the American Psychological Association (APA), being in nature is associated with:

  • “Increases in happiness, subjective well-being, positive affect, positive social interactions, and a sense of meaning and purpose in life, as well as decreases in mental distress” (APA)
  • “[Improved] working memory, cognitive flexibility, and attentional control” (APA)
  • Decreased anxiety (ScienceDirect)
  • Lowered risk of depression (USDA Forest Service)
  • Reduced effects of loneliness or social isolation (APA)
  • Reduced obsessive negative thinking that can harm our mental health (Stanford
  • Lowered cortisol levels (Landscape and Urban Planning)

Less stress, anxiety, rumination, loneliness, and depression—and increased happiness and sense of meaning in life? Yes please! If it sounds too good to be true, it’s not. Here’s how it works.

Why Does Time Outdoors Make Such a Difference?

Three hikers wearing packs cross a river with mountains in the distance.

There are a few different hypotheses as to why the outdoors can have such a positive effect on our mental health. 

According to the APA, one hypothesis claims that “since our ancestors evolved in wild settings and relied on the environment for survival, we have an innate drive to connect with nature.” Another suggests that “spending time in nature triggers a physiological response that lowers stress levels.” The third theory is that “nature replenishes one’s cognitive resources, restoring the ability to concentrate and pay attention.” 

Studies have not definitively proven that one hypothesis over the others is true. Instead, it’s likely a blend of our origins as a species, the physiological response of stress reduction, and cognitive effect of attention restoration. 

How Much Time Should You Spend Outside?

A group of hikers walks toward a parking lot with a mountain in the distance.

You might be wondering how much time you need to spend in nature in order to reap the benefits. Researchers found that 120 minutes per week is an ideal starting point. That works out to as little as 17 minutes a day. A lunchtime walk can be enough to have a positive impact on your mental health.

Does Camping Count?

An RV parked beneath trees and next to a river.
Elkamp Eastcreek – Mineral, WA

Yes, camping certainly counts! Whatever outdoor activities you enjoy while camping—hiking, fishing, stargazing, snowshoeing—they’re all excellent opportunities to spend time in nature and reap its amazing mental health benefits. 

Work is often one of our greatest stressors, and taking time off from our workplace and rigid routines can help reduce stress. In fact, 91% of campers cite relaxation as the most common reason for taking a camping trip, according to the Outdoor Almanac. Some folks even opt to go solo camping to make the experience more reflective and meditative! 

On top of the natural benefits of getting outside, there’s another practice we can do in parallel to amplify the positive effects: a digital detox. Excessive social media use can undermine people’s subjective well-being—how they feel “moment-to-moment and how satisfied they are with their lives.” Taking an extended break from screen time and social apps while spending time in nature is a great step toward improved quality of life! 

Additionally, it’s common for people to multitask during their screen time—emailing, texting, and watching shows all at once—which is actually harmful to our cognitive control. Multitaskers are more easily distracted, can’t mentally organize information as well, and struggle with memory. By unplugging during your next camping trip and taking a break from media multitasking, you can let your brain recuperate from absorbing so much information at once.

As mentioned earlier, nature can help us improve our focus, so a digital detox is a smart way to maximize mental health benefits. You can certainly use your phone to take photos while camping, but try to stay off the internet for a few days.

Other Ways to Experience the Outdoors

A group of young hikers laughing at the trail summit.

Sometimes it can be hard to get away for a camping trip, so here are a few recommendations from Mind.org to incorporate the outdoors into your daily life.

Notice Nature

RVs parked in a forest.
Elkamp Eastcreek – Mineral, WA

It can be grounding to take time to sit and observe nature. Listen to the sounds around you—are there birds chirping? Squirrels chattering? Dogs barking? Take it all in. You can also practice mindfulness by observing things you can smell, see, touch, hear, or even taste (if you’re feeling daring!). 

Gardening 

Gloved hands plant a vegetable garden.

If you have a yard, try planting a small garden! Growing your own veggies can be very fulfilling. For those short on space, consider growing herbs like basil, mint, thyme, and oregano in planters inside by a window.

Take a Walk

A bridge through the forest.
Elkamp Eastcreek – Mineral, WA

This is an easy and accessible option! Take a walk, whether it’s around your neighborhood or in a local park. It doesn’t have to be strenuous; it can be gentle and relaxing.

Bring Nature Inside

A plant in a cupholder inside an RV.

Even when you can’t always find time to get outside, you can still enjoy nature from indoors. Add some plants to your home for a splash of greenery, or spend a few minutes each day sitting by a window and looking up at the sky. The APA reports that feeling connected to nature can be beneficial, too. For example, you can take pictures of some of your favorite places in nature and use them as a background on your phone.

Whether you opt for a weekend glamping getaway in the mountains or a stargazing tent trip in the desert, the mental health benefits of being outdoors are waiting for you to enjoy them. Ready to plan your next outdoor adventure so you can carve out some quality time caring for your mental health? Start browsing Campspot today.

Emily Hessney Lynch is a small business owner, reader, and writer. She lives in upstate New York with her husband and their three rescue dogs. They love getting outside year-round and enjoy paddle boarding, hiking, and snowshoeing. You can follow her on Instagram at @servemethesky.

Image credit in order of appearance: Adobe Stock – Encierro, Adobe Stock – Seventyfour, Adobe Stock – yossarian6, Tyler Way, Tyler Way, Adobe Stock – Monkey Business, Adobe Stock – Encierro, Tyler Way, Adobe Stock – Jorge