Take a Hike: Research Shows Walks in Nature Make You Happier

USF neuroscientist worries cities are bad for human health

By ED CARPENTER, OFFICE OF MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS Posted Wed, 09/16/2015 - 15:34

Does an early morning beach walk bring a smile to your face? Do you look forward to jogging in Golden Gate Park to clear your head? It’s no wonder. New research co-authored by USF’s Ben Levy shows that communing with nature is good for you and might even make you smarter.

Ben Levy“The evidence shows that walking along a wooded, nature trail makes you happier, decreases anxiety, and discourages you from ruminating and obsessing about negative thoughts, as compared to walking along a trafficked roadway,” said Levy, a cognitive neuroscientist and assistant professor of psychology.

½ of all people live in cities

Nature walks also improve some research subjects’ mental function, enhancing their capacity to hold strings of letters in their head while computing math equations, Levy said. The findings in this area were less definitive, however. 

The results, supported by a growing body of similar work, raise questions about the impacts of urbanization on humans’ mental health, said Levy, who conducted the research with colleagues from Stanford University. More than half of all people live in cities today, with that number expected to jump to 70 percent by 2050.

The results may suggest how we can better design cities, Levy said. With that in mind, he and student research assistant Thomas Biba ‘17, a USF psychology major and neuroscience and philosophy minor, have begun looking into whether architectural design can produce similar psychological benefits to walking in nature — a project they hope to complete next year.

Making it in The New York Times

“If we find a benefit, it may one day help architects design buildings and cities that mimic the abstract qualities of nature, creating better environments for people,” Biba said. 

Levy’s research, “The benefits of nature experience: Improved affect and cognition” was published earlier this year in the journal Landscape and Urban Planning and was recently highlighted in The New York Times’ wellness blog.

The results of the study are based on 60 participants who took a 50-minute walk, either along a park path with grass, shrubs, and trees near Stanford University or along El Camino Real, a busy thoroughfare in Palo Alto.

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