Picture yourself on a white sandy beach, in a field of colorful flowers, or atop a lush green mountain. Chances are you’re feeling more relaxed already. Nature has a way of evoking calmness and easing stress, and research has suggested taking walks in a natural environment may be beneficial to overall well-being. This connection prompted a 2014 study published in the journal Ecopsychology where researchers from the UK tested if group nature walks are effective in lessening stress and depression and supporting mental well-being.

To evaluate their hypothesis, researchers looked at data from over 1,500 participants of Walking for Health, a national group walk program in England comprised of 70,000 people attending 3,400 group walks each week. Study participants were categorized as either Non-Group Walkers, meaning they did not attend the group walks, or Nature Group Walkers, describing people who attended at least two walks in natural places such as farmland, urban green spaces, or coastal areas. To determine the success of the program, each Non-Group Walker was matched and compared with a Nature-Group Walker of similar demographics and health status.

Results indicated group nature walks were significantly associated with lower depression and perceived stress, and more positive mental well-being. This happy mindset was even more pronounced in individuals who took additional nature walks outside of the group program. However, the duration of the walk had no effect, meaning just a few minutes walking in nature might be enough to turn a frown upside down, as long as you do it often.

Nature walks not only help mitigate the effects of life events on perceived stress, but also provide convenient, inexpensive, and low-risk exercise, which has been shown to reduce depression. Any natural environment works, whether it’s a seascape, forest, or a tree-lined path in the city. To reap the greatest benefit, walk as often as possible, even for a short amount of time, and make it social by bringing a friend (or a few!). Several researchers have found people are more likely to walk in the company of others, and enjoy walking in a group more than walking alone. Stress can negatively affect all aspects of health, and nature walking with a group of friends could be a way to put your mind at ease.

BONUS: Research shows nature walks can not only ease your mind, but boost its power as well.A study from the University of Michigan found a walk in a tree-lined park improved memory test performance. In a related experiment, subjects who merely viewed images of the great outdoors enjoyed a 22% increase in test scores. Those who looked at city scenes actually suffered a 13% drop in scores!

Published April 1, 2015