Stressed? Just Get Outside

The easiest, healthiest way to relieve stress is to spend time outdoors. As little as 5 minutes can do a lot of good!

By Emily Main

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The easiest, and healthiest, way to decompress is to enjoy a little walk in the park. Spring is around the corner, a mild winter has led to lots of early flower buds and chirping birds, and warm days are coming earlier and earlier. In a good mood yet? If so, there's a reason for that. Researchers are discovering that surrounding yourself with nature can be one of the most powerful stress-relievers out there.

In a new study published in the journal Landscape and Urban Planning, researchers measured levels of the stress hormone cortisol in 25 healthy adults and asked them to fill out questionnaires related to their perceived home and work stress levels. They compared that information to the number of parks, woodlands, and other natural environments in each participant's zipcode.

As it turned out, people living in areas with higher percentages of green space had lower levels of cortisol, and their self-reported measurements of stress were lower, than people who lived in concrete jungles.

When it comes to alleviating stress, there's just something about being in our natural element that's hard to beat, says the study's lead author Catharine Ward Thompson, director of the OPENspace Research Centre at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, where the study took place. For one thing, getting outside forces you to exercise, even if it's a short walk, and exercise is the best natural mood booster there is. For another, you're more likely to encounter neighbors and friends if you take a walk around your block or take your kids to the playground than if you're parked in front of your TV, and social contact is another good way to cut stress.

"Taking advantage of opportunities to visit a green space, as often as possible, even if only for five minutes, might well enhance your wellbeing and reduce your stress levels," she says.

And five minutes really is all it takes, according to a 2010 study in the journal Environmental Science & Technology. They found that people experienced the largest boosts to their mood and self-esteem after just five minutes of time spent outside doing some form of light-intensity exercise, like walking.

Need some ideas on getting more nature into your life? Try these:

Do anything you'd normally do inside, outside. Move your daily yoga sessions to your back porch, or do your taxes online while sitting on your patio taking in the breeze. Eat outside. Get off the treadmill and run on a trail. Make it a goal to spend at least five minutes of every day relaxing around greenery.

Get your afternoon pick-me-up from a walk, not your coffee. Caffeine just gives you the jitters and makes you edgy. Talk a walk around the perimeter of your office building instead.

Convince your boss to have "moving meetings." Professors at the George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis came up with the idea of "Meetings on the Move" to get office workers out from behind their desks. Replacing a conventional sit-down meeting with an outdoor walk-and-talk not only gives you the benefit of exercise; the change of scenery usually can spur more creative ideas.

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