“Keep close to Nature’s heart…climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean,” advised naturalist John Muir. But you don’t have to camp for a week or scale heights to reap the mental rewards of communing with nature. New research proves less than an hour’s stroll through the countryside can boost cognitive recall by nearly 20% — triple the increase experienced by urban trekkers.

The University of Michigan study measured how 38 college students performed on memory tests (repeating a series of numbers backwards) before and after taking a walk either in a tree-lined park or busy downtown area. The city saunter had little impact on memory function — while park perambulations improved performance, regardless of season or weather. 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!

Research shows walking has longer-term benefits as well. Seniors who adopted a regimen of brisk walking for an hour, three times a week, actually increased brain volume. The same routine can dramatically improve aerobic capacity, particularly among the elderly. Try wearing a pedometer and aiming for 10,000 steps a day — you’ll clock more mileage than you would by simply setting a time goal. This, in turn, can yield higher levels of HDL “good” cholesterol, which is impacted by length of exercise (vs.frequency or intensity). Your best bet is to aim for variety, mixing up long walks with strength training, biking, yoga, dancing, volleyball, soccer or surfing.

Bonus:  Eat more blueberries, spinach, strawberries and broccoli to help preserve mental function through the years.

Published May 1, 2009