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How Taking a Walk on the Green Side May Lead to a Longer Life

Why communing with nature may give us healthier lives.

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group of women walk in the forest
Lianne Milton
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What if there was a way to help sharpen your memory, increase your focus, boost your overall sense of well-being, reduce stress and improve your physical health? Just to up the ante, what if this magic something-something was free and you could reap benefits in a mere 15 minutes?

I’m the last person to believe in wellness snake oil, but every now and then the research is so strong and the steps are so easy (literally!), that I would be crazy not to pay attention.

Spending as little as 15 minutes in nature is proven to have profound emotional and psychological benefits. Walking is one of the best ways to improve heart health and physical well-being at any age. When you combine the two, you have one of the great mind-body elixirs.

I was skeptical at first, not because I doubt the experts, but because I live in the heart of New York City, many miles from the nearest forest.

“The nature experience does not have to be in the middle of a wilderness,” Cynthia Frantz, professor of psychology and environmental studies at Oberlin College, assured me. “You can go to a park in an urban setting or walk by a river and get all the benefits.”

Age is also not an impediment. One study on people over 70, published in Scientific Reports, found that being active in nature helped participants maintain healthy sleep and psychological well-being, and improved their cognitive functioning. These are all pretty good reasons to get off the couch.

Getting started

So how much walking are we actually talking about?

“For reducing mortality, you should at least get 6,000 steps. The optimal dose for dementia prevention is around 10,000 steps,” says Dr. Justin Kompf, who has a doctorate in exercise and health sciences and works as a personal trainer. A recent meta-analysis published in The Lancet found that taking more steps per day was associated with progressively lower mortality risk for people over 60, with the sweet spot between approximately 6,000 and 8,000 steps.

The good news is steps can be accumulated throughout the day. If your motivation sags, Kompf has these tips:

“Just tell yourself you’ll go for a 10-minute walk. Chances are once you’re out there, you will want to keep going. You can also try a technique called, ‘temptation bundling’ by pairing something that you want to do with something that you think you should be doing. That might mean walking with a friend or saving an addictive audiobook for your walks.”  

Help boost your brain power

“Spending as little as 15 minutes in nature can improve cognition and help to restore what we call attentional capacity, which is basically your ability to focus on a task,” Oberlin professor Frantz says. “We all have a limited amount of attention, which is taxed by daily chores, our phones and social media. Walking in nature, where there are fewer distractions, gives your brain a break and restores your ability to focus when you get back.”  

Florence Williams, author of The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative, is a seminal advocate for the benefits of walking in nature. As she writes in her book, “Scientists are quantifying nature’s effects not only on our mood and well-being, but also on our ability to think — to remember things, to plan, to create, to daydream and to focus — as well as on our social skills.”  

Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative

Help increase your happiness

“We found people had stronger positive emotions after spending time in nature,” Frantz says. “Interestingly, it also made people become less self-conscious and worried about what other people think of them. People can be incredibly nurturing and bring us great joy, but they can also judge us. Nature doesn't judge us,” she says.

Walking clearly compounds nature’s benefits. A recent study on older Americans published in 2022 by the American Psychological Association found that after taking 15-minute walks outdoors for just eight weeks, participants had a greater sense of joy and what the researchers call “smile intensity.” (How much do you love that phrase?!) 

Skip the stress

Among its numerous benefits, walking also reduces the levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, and can also help to lower blood pressure. Without the stress, coping skills go up. Frantz found that after walking in nature, people reported that difficult issues they were dealing with felt more manageable. She recommends asking a friend to keep you company on some of your walks.

“The older we get, the easier it is to become sedentary and isolated,” she adds. “Grabbing a buddy will give you the benefits of movement and nature, and keep you socially engaged.”

OK, I’m convinced. While I do spend a lot of time sitting at my desk, I’ve arranged to take walks with a friend by the East River in Manhattan a few mornings a week. The open sky and the way the light bounces off the water made me so happy the other day that I took a picture and made it the background image on my phone. Just looking at it increases my smile intensity.

According to Nature Fix author Williams, it benefits not just the person, but the world around you. “We don't experience natural environments enough to realize how restored they can make us feel, nor are we aware that studies also show they make us healthier, more creative, more empathetic and more apt to engage with the world and with each other,” she writes. “Nature, it turns out, is good for civilization.”

How much do you walk every week? Let us know in the comments below.

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