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How a walk in the park can improve your mental health

By Ian Hull

Anxiety, depression and other mental health issues can occur for any number of reasons, but they often emerge when a loved one has died. While grief is a natural occurrence that’s distinct from depression, it’s not unusual for the grief over the death of a friend or family member to trigger a major depressive episode. And these conditions can worsen if the death results in family conflict, whether over the estate or other family issues.

When dealing with a mental health issue, we typically consider a number of treatments, from therapy, to medication, to increased social supports to help the person recover. These can all play a critical role in improving mental health.

But what can sometimes be overlooked are psychological improvement activities that a person can undertake themselves – ones that can have a measurable mental health benefit. One of the most surprising – and easiest to carry out – is a walk in nature, through a ravine, urban park, or rural area.

Taking a walk? Make it green

Exercise has long been proven to have significant mental health benefits. Many of us know this first hand from that “feel good” sensation after a workout. But there can be hurdles for someone suffering from a condition like depression to initiate even moderately intense exercise. These hurdles can include age, unfamiliarity with exercise routines, or just a lack of energy.

A walk – on the other hand – is something that most people can undertake quite easily. The key from a mental health perspective is to ensure that the walk takes place in a natural setting. A 2015 study compared the brain activity of people who walked 90 minutes through an urban setting to those who walked for the same length of time through a natural setting with trees and vegetation. The nature walkers showed significantly lower activity in the portion of the brain linked to ruminations, which can be a key contributor to depression and anxiety.

This isn’t the first study to show the link between time in nature and better mental health – and the science is strong. The Canadian Mental Health Association – Ontario has even funded park walks for youth with mental health issues, suggesting that nature walks are truly a beneficial activity for all ages.

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