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Want to Build Your Brain? Take it Outdoors

brain Aug 16, 2021

Research shows that fresh air and green spaces are good for your gray matter.

By Selene Yeager

Lots of us worry about our brain health and mental well-being during the menopause transition when science shows our gray (and white) matter is literally physically changing and our anxiety levels rise as our hormones drop. You may even find yourself stuck ruminating on your mental and cognitive health, because hormonal fluctuations are linked to that, too (because of course, they are).

 

One simple prescription to improve brain and mental health: give yourself a daily dose of outdoor exercise in a natural setting, even if just a city park or greenway. Research shows both fresh air and green spaces do a brain good.

 

This is not rocket science (or brain surgery), of course. We intuitively know that communing with nature feels good. But it’s cool to see MRI scans provide proof. In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences, researchers found that when women and men took a walk along a greenway in the Bay Area, they not only reported less rumination, but also their brain scans showed reduced neural activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex (sgPFC), an area of the brain associated with self-focused behavioral withdrawal. (Importantly, study participants who walked the same amount of time along a busy thoroughfare in Palo Alto didn’t enjoy these benefits; nature matters).

 

Another, more recent brain scan study published in The World Journal of Biological Psychiatry found that just being outside actually increases the grey matter volume in the right dorsolateral–prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), which is a part of the brain associated with executive functions like working memory, planning, and selective attention (a.k.a. where our brain gets foggy).

 

Even small amounts of time outdoors was linked to greater gray matter volume in the DLPFC, even when the researchers took other potentially brain-building lifestyle factors into account. In fact, the more time outdoors, the higher the gray matter, with the average brain structure change attributed to time outside being 3 percent, similar to those associated with other known brain-building activities like physical exercise and cognitive training.

 

Sometimes we forget how much of a big difference the little things can make. Daylight exposure helps sleep. Quelling stress helps hot flashes. These don’t have to be overwhelming, separate “to-do’s” added onto an already packed day. You can roll it all into 10 or 15 minutes of Nature Rx in the morning by grabbing your coffee or tea and doing some mobility moves in your backyard. Or by taking lunch in a nearby park rather than working at your desk. Your brain and your well-being will thank you.

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