Living in the city and feeling anxious? One solution might be to find a wooded area nearby and spend some time there.
A study conducted at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development has investigated the relationship between the availability of nature near city dwellers’ homes and their brain health. Its findings are relevant for urban planners among others.
Noise, pollution, and many people in a confined space: Life in a city can cause chronic stress. City dwellers are at a higher risk of psychiatric illnesses such as depression, anxiety disorders, and schizophrenia than country dwellers. Comparisons show higher activity levels in city dwellers’ than in country dwellers’ amygdala — a central nucleus in the brain that plays an important role in stress processing and reactions to danger. Which factors can have a protective influence?
A research team led by psychologist Simone Kühn has examined which effects nature near people’s homes such as forest, urban green, or wasteland has on stress-processing brain regions such as the amygdala. “Research on brain plasticity supports the assumption that the environment can shape brain structure and function. That is why we are interested in the environmental conditions that may have positive effects on brain development.
Studies of people in the countryside have already shown that living close to nature is good for their mental health and well-being. We therefore decided to examine city dwellers,” explains first author Simone Kühn, who led the study at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development and now works at the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf (UKE).
Indeed, the researchers found a relationship between place of residence and brain health: those city dwellers living close to a forest were more likely to show indications of a physiologically healthy amygdala structure und were therefore presumably better able to cope with stress. This effect remained stable when differences in educational qualifications and income levels were controlled for.
The participants in the present study are from the Berlin Aging Study II (BASE-II) – a larger longitudinal study examining the physical, psychological, and social conditions for healthy aging. In total, 341 adults aged 61 to 82 years took part in the present study. Apart from carrying out memory and reasoning tests, the structure of stress-processing brain regions, especially the amygdala, was assessed using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
In order to examine the influence of nature close to peoples’ homes on these brain regions, the researchers combined the MRI data with geoinformation about the participants’ places of residence. This information stemmed from the European Environment Agency’s Urban Atlas, which provides an overview of urban land use in Europe.
“Our study investigates the connection between urban planning features and brain health for the first time,” says co-author Ulman Lindenberger, Director of the Center for Lifespan Psychology at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development. By 2050, almost 70 percent of the world population is expected to be living in cities. These results could therefore be very important for urban planning. In the near future, however, the observed association between the brain and closeness to forests would need to be confirmed in further studies and other cities, stated Ulman Lindenberger.
What about gardening?
Other studies show that spending time in your garden might have a similar beneficial effect.
One Texas A&M University study surveyed participants who differentiated themselves as gardeners or non-gardeners by responding positively or negatively to the simple question of whether or not they garden.
The researchers found significant differences in overall life satisfaction scores, with gardeners receiving higher mean scores (indicating more positive results) on the LSIA. Sommerfeld, Zajicek, and Waliczek explained that more than 84% of gardeners agreed with the statement, “I have made plans for things I’ll be doing a month or a year from now” compared with only 68% of non-gardeners.
Significant differences between gardeners and nongardeners were also noted in the energy level statement, “I feel old and somewhat tired.” Gardeners disagreed with the statement at a rate of 70.9%, whereas 57.3% of non-gardeners disagreed with the statement.
Older adults who garden also reported a higher level of daily physical activity compared to nongardening respondents. Over three times as many nongardeners (14.71%) considered themselves to be “quite inactive.”, while only 4.43% of gardener said the same. “Almost twice as many gardeners (38%) considered themselves to be “very active” compared with only 19.6% of nongardeners”, noted the study.
More than 75% of gardeners who participated in the survey rated their health as either very good or excellent. Gardeners also reported eating more fruit and vegetables because of their exposure to gardening. “These factors, in conjunction with higher physical activity, result in healthier lifestyles and increased quality of life”, the researchers wrote.
The study presents strong evidence that gardening can be an effective way for older adults to increase life satisfaction while also increasing physical activity.
In a time when older adults are living longer and enjoying more free time, gardening offers the opportunity to fulfill needs created by changing lifestyles. Gardening provides us with opportunities to reconnect with ourselves through nature and a healthy activity to enhance our quality of life.
A separate 15 week study in South Korea showed both physical and mental health benefits of spending time in the garden.
In a group of elderly women studied, the ones in the gardening intervention group exhibited a significant decrease in waist circumference, while the waist circumference of women in the control group showed a tendency to slightly increase. Women in the gardening intervention group maintained their lean mass, but women in control group lost lean mass over the period.
Women’s aerobic endurance was also affected; the intervention group showed increased scores in an aerobic endurance test; the control group showed no improvement in a step test for aerobic endurance. Women in the intervention group also demonstrated improvements in hand dexterity.
The women in the gardening intervention experienced benefits to cognitive and psychological functions as well. Assessments revealed that women in the intervention group showed “significant improvement” in cognitive function.
Interestingly, women in the control group exhibited a “significant increase” in scores for depression, with symptoms progressing from normal before the intervention period to moderate depression symptom at the end of the study. “Meanwhile, the depression scores of elderly women in the gardening intervention group did not change during this period,” the authors said.
The researchers said their results demonstrate that the gardening intervention improved the physical and psychological health conditions of the elderly women who participated. “Moreover, satisfaction with the gardening intervention as a leisure time physical activity for health conditions of elderly women was very high,” they said.
So if you’re feeling sad or anxious, you might want to make some time to spend in your garden or walking in the woods!