Hippie woman posing

Every notice the difference in the way you feel when you walk home through a park, or a really pretty, tree-lined block versus walking down the busiest street in town? Yeah, there’s a big difference. And now, science has backed this up, thankyouverymuch.

A new study conducted by a graduate student at Stanford University, and published last week, suggests that taking a break away from the city streets and walking in the park can have a majorly positive impact on your mental health.

Gregory Bartman, a student at Stanford’s Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources, is particularly interested in how living in urban environments impacts mental health. Past studies have found that people in cities tend to have a higher risk for depression and anxiety, while those who live outside of cities have a lower risk. This uptick in stress could be linked to lack of access to green spaces, like parks and nature walks. In fact, one University of Pennsylvania study found that heart rates dropped, signaling reduced stress, when city-dwellers walked in greener areas.

Bartman has conducted studies around this idea before. Last month, he and a team worked on a study that asked volunteers to walk along in green areas on Stanford’s campus and others to walk along a busy highway. They found those who walked in the green space were less stressed and more attentive. So now, Bartman wants to know why.

In his latest study, Bartman focused on brooding — that tendency many of us have to ruminate over all the horrible, no-good, very-bad things until it totally gets us down. That kind of thought pattern has been found to have a link to the brain’s subgenual prefrontal cortex.

He and his team asked 38 city dwellers to do a quick questionnaire to find out how often they tended to brood, then researchers did a scan to get a look at activity in their subgenual prefrontal cortex. Then the participants were assigned to walk for 90 minutes, either along a quiet and green stretch of campus or next a highway in Palo Alto. They weren’t able to walk with anyone or listen to music.

Immediately after their walk, scans found that those who walked along the highway had way more activity in their subgenual prefrontral cortex, while those who walked in a natural setting had less. A questionnaire also backed up these findings, with those who walked on campus reporting lower stress levels.

This is really just the start of understanding what being in nature does to our brains, but the findings are significant. Although we don’t know yet what it is exactly that helps us calm down — the quiet, the greenery, fresh air — we now have reason to believe stress and time in nature could be strongly linked.

So what does this mean for you? Pick a park and go hangout!

(Image via iStock)