The Mental Health Benefits of Getting Outdoors

September 24, 2023

Many of us spend too much time indoors and on screens—if you’re feeling unmotivated, getting outdoors may be just what you need

In 1853, Henry David Thoreau wrote in his journal, “All nature is doing her best each moment to make us well—she exists for no other end. Do not resist her.”

Long before Thoreau retreated to his cabin on Walden Pond for two years to immerse himself in nature, human beings have understood the restorative effects of fresh air on our states of mind.

Nature gives us a sense that we are part of something greater than ourselves. It can get us out of our own heads.

Because time in the outdoors offers the benefit of mental rest and rejuvenation, it has been shown to improve memory, attention, impulse control, and creativity in the general population. For example, in children, it has led to improved school performance.

It is not surprising that time spent in nature can improve our mental health.

Keep Reading To Learn

  • How time in nature promotes mental health
  • How natural environments change our neurochemistry
  • Why ecotherapy is gaining traction

What You Need To Know About Stress

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Whether at home, school, or work, everyone of all ages experiences stress. But how can we keep stress from overtaking our everyday lives?

Learn to recognize the signs and how to know when to get help.

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What Nature Can Teach Us

Spending time in nature can help us disconnect from the modern world’s stresses. According to Kirsten W. Bolton, LICSW, director of McLean Hospital’s Appleton program, nature’s tranquility is essential.

“Nature doesn’t have a to-do list,” she says. “There’s a ton of chaos in nature. And yet, it has a stability that we can all learn from.”

Many of us remark about feeling burned out. Even worse, feeling exhausted at the end of a workday is often equated with “accomplishing things.”

But under this tiredness is a frenzied stress that you might always sense. You may feel like you have a lot on your plate and don’t know how to organize your thoughts.

Bolton reminds us that nature has the ability to ease our minds when we’re feeling overwhelmed.

Even when disruptive events occur in the natural world, everything eventually rights itself. Storms die down. Flood waters recede. The sun comes back out.

That’s the kind of “it’s all going to be okay” reminder that many of us could use—and it’s happening right outside our windows.

Why You Might Consider Becoming an Outdoors Person

In contemporary society, many people live in cities or suburbs where nature may not be easily accessible. We are spending more time indoors and on devices to the detriment of our mental health.

But even limited periods of daily exposure to nature can increase well-being. A 2010 study on green exercise showed nature’s healing properties can be further enhanced when combined with movement, which releases endorphins—stress-releasing hormones—in the brain.

In just five minutes of green exercise, study participants reported improvements in self-esteem and mood, regardless of their health status, gender, or age.

Sometimes you have no control over your environment—for example, when you are stuck at your desk. Research also shows that just having an office window with a view of trees, keeping indoor plants, or listening to recordings of bird songs is better than no contact with nature at all.

Urban planners have been advocating for more green spaces in cities to combat the impact of concrete jungles. The push for greener public spaces, as well as school recess and outdoor learning environments for children, has increased in the last several years.

Programs such as New York’s Fresh Air Fund have connected city children to summer camps and residencies with host families in rural and suburban areas.

Should You Take a Mental Health Day?

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Whether it’s a whole day or just a few hours, taking time off can help your mental well-being. So why are we sometimes so resistant to taking a day off for our mental health?

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The Gifts of Nature

Nature has many special gifts that can enhance our mental well-being. Spending time outdoors can make us feel happier and healthier and positively change our neurochemistry.

Nature: A Source of Connection

McLean’s Appleton program offers a gardening group as a therapeutic way to connect with the outdoors. According to Bolton, the initiative is very popular with the program’s patients, including some who are hesitant at first.

“Someone will say they’re not really a garden person,” she says. “But they’ll entertain it, and eventually, they’re the ones taking charge of things like watering and weeding.”

Experiencing nature in this way gives people an opportunity to connect with one another. In addition, hobbies like gardening also offer a sense of accomplishment.

People focus on growing fruits and vegetables that are then used for cooking. For many who are seeking purpose and positivity, this gives them something to be proud of.

“It’s a peacefulness; a calmness,” Bolton explains. “I think if you’re doing physical labor out there in nature, there’s a primitive biological reaction that can give you a lot of energy and strength as well.”

Paying Attention to the Natural World

Nature can improve our ability to focus. For example, a 2020 study examined how we use our attention in the outdoors.

Specifically, researchers looked at the issue of voluntary attention versus involuntary attention.

We use voluntary attention to ignore distractions and focus on daily tasks, such as working on a project or cooking dinner. In the short term, voluntary attention is helpful, but it’s difficult to maintain over time.

Nature, on the other hand, provides an opportunity for us to exercise involuntary attention. The natural world is filled with novel sights and sounds—vibrant foliage, skittering squirrels, and chirping birds—that effortlessly capture our awareness.

With involuntary attention, we are aware of our environment without preparing to react to it.

Because of this, according to a theory known as attention restoration, time spent in a natural environment gives us a chance to recharge our minds. Attention restoration can benefit anyone.

Members of the general population have performed better on attention tests after they spent time outdoors. However, attention restoration has compelling implications for people with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

For example, a study on green play settings found that children’s ADHD symptoms were more manageable after their activities took place in green spaces instead of other areas.

The benefits were equally robust whether the activities were active (such as a game of tag) or passive (reading a book, for example). In addition, the greener a child’s environment was, the more manageable their ADHD symptoms became.

Another study found that children diagnosed with ADHD concentrated better after taking a short walk in the park than a walk downtown or in a neighborhood.

The study’s authors concluded that the impact of a dose of nature was as large as the peak effect of extended-release methylphenidate, the medication most frequently prescribed to treat ADHD in children and adolescents.

Attention restoration can also be helpful for people who experience PTSD. The stimulating aspects of nature can take people’s minds off their day-to-day stresses. Nature’s calming effect also has particular relevance for people with trauma histories.

In the Mood to Experience the Outdoors

Several studies on nature and mental health, such as this 2019 paper from an ecosystem service perspective, link experiences in nature to improved mood, positive social interaction, and a sense of meaning and purpose.

Time spent outdoors benefits people with major depressive disorder (MDD). In a 2012 study, researchers observed 19 people with the condition. Random group members were assigned to take a 50-55-minute walk in a natural setting, while others spent the same amount of time walking in an urban area.

The study found that participants who took nature walks had significant increases in positive emotions and decreases in negative emotions following the activity. These benefits were seen even if participants continued to think about an unpleasant memory that was intentionally triggered at the beginning of the exercise.

Nature’s effect on mood can be attributed to several factors. One of these is the impact of attention restoration mentioned above. However, other changes taking place in the body can play a role.

Sun through the trees

Nature’s Brain-Changing Effects

Time spent outdoors can change our neurochemistry. For example, studies show that exposure to green spaces releases serotonin, the same neurotransmitter present in the most common antidepressant medications.

Fresh air, which increases oxygen levels in our brains, raises serotonin levels, as does exposure to beneficial microorganisms found in soil.

Our brain also releases serotonin when sunlight hits our skin and eyes. In fact, natural light plays a role in several mood-related processes.

Sunlight on human skin synthesizes vitamin D, which is essential for good mental health. Studies show that many people who experience depression have low levels of the vitamin. Because of this, it is possible that more vitamin D—and more sunlight—can help prevent or alleviate symptoms.

Time outside also regulates the body’s clock. Melatonin, a hormone released at night by the pineal gland, is directly affected by the amount of natural light that reaches our eyes during daylight hours.

Most people need adequate sleep (7 to 8 hours per night) for mental well-being. Lack of sleep can cause or worsen depression, bipolar disorder, and other mental health conditions.

Ecotherapy: Nature as Nurturer

Ecotherapy, or nature therapy, is an umbrella term for many activities and treatments that benefit physical and mental health. It involves time spent outdoors—often with other people. Ecopsychology is a type of ecotherapy in which mental health clinicians guide activities.

Some therapists practice ecopsychology with individual patients. Treatment has been shown to be effective with depression, anxiety, and stress.

Individual ecopsychology can include holding sessions outdoors, providing nature-based homework assignments, or mindfulness exercises that include visualizing a nature scene.

There are several types of ecotherapy.


Raising plants, flowers, or crops of food gives participants a sense of accomplishment, cooperation, and nurturing.

Adventure-Based Activity

Activities such as white-water rafting, rock climbing, and ziplining allow people to feel the thrill of novel experiences and support each other through them.

Animal-Assisted Therapy

The benefits of nature can magnify when people spend time with animals. Horses, dogs, and other creatures bestow a sense of calm, connection, and unconditional acceptance among those who care for them.

Green Exercise

The health benefits of cycling, walking, yoga, and other physical activities are enhanced outdoors.


Maintaining hiking trails, picking up litter, creating safe roadway passages for wildlife, and otherwise “giving back” to nature instills a sense of purpose and hope.

Forest Bathing

Immersing oneself in a natural setting using all five senses significantly increases relaxation.

Art Therapy

Whether conducted indoors or outdoors, art therapy can use materials collected in nature (such as shells, rocks, and leaves) to connect people to the earth. The practice creates a sense of calm and engagement.

McLean Is Here To Help

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McLean Hospital offers world-class mental health services to help children and adults who may be struggling with mental health symptoms.

Let us help you find the care that’s right for you or your loved one. Call us today at 617.855.3141 to discuss treatment options.

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How To Get Outside More Often

No matter where you live, you can aim to be more intentional in your experience of the natural world. Even better: it doesn’t have to be a two-year commitment like Thoreau’s.

Need help figuring out how to venture into the great outdoors? It’s easy to get inspired. You can look online to see if your area has parks, hiking trails, or accessible ponds or lakes. There are many ways to enjoy nature—and it doesn’t have to be an all-out adventure.

Bolton shares that any amount of time can be an opportunity to access the outdoors.

“Whether it’s for two minutes or two days, think about the idea that you’re out there in nature and try to adapt your senses to it,” she offers.

Bolton suggests leaving technology behind when possible—being in nature while on your phone can be a very different experience. With that type of distraction, you can lose out on the beauty around you.

“You can go sit outside your apartment and listen to the birds for half an hour or hike on the Appalachian Trail,” Bolton says.

“You don’t need to identify as a nature person or enthusiast to access or be nourished by nature.”

While we encourage stepping outdoors and exploring nature, we know it can feel like a lot—especially if you’re new to it. You do not need to go to Thoreau’s extremes.

But if you are feeling unmotivated by your surroundings, you could take a page from his book and spend some of your time in the great outdoors.

Want More Information?

Looking for even more information about the mental health and well-being? You may find these resources helpful.

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