The Benefits of Being Mindful Outdoors
An increasing number of studies—likely borne out by personal experience—attest to the fact that being in nature boosts our health and well-being. A new review of the research finds that combining the outdoors with mindfulness may lead to even better results.
A team of researchers were curious to see whether taking mindfulness outdoors might boost its benefits. To do so, they systematically reviewed the results of 25 existing studies that used nature-based mindfulness interventions. Studies involved in the review had to include either teens or adults, offer mindfulness instruction in a natural environment, and look at physical or psychological outcomes.
The research that they reviewed included a diverse array of programs. Some were brief, lasting only 15 minutes, while others took as long as 90 days. The outcomes assessed were similarly varied. Some studies looked at changes in psychological factors like attention, positive mood, depression, and anxiety, while others focused on physical indicators such as heart rate variability, blood pressure, inflammation, and immune system function.
Seven of the studies included a single session with healthy participants who were guided to either be mindful while sitting or walking, or to practice mindfulness in their daily lives. Six studies included one or more weekly meetings with people who were stressed, depressed, or anxious. Most of these included gardening and psychotherapy, and only one involved formal meditation training. A number were residential interventions or wilderness therapy, and some included substance use treatment. Several of the programs required formal meditation practice, or involved Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), whereas others encouraged open awareness while outdoors. Outdoor spaces ranged from small gardens to large wilderness areas.
Results of the review showed that mindfulness in natural settings yielded positive results. Authors believe that “the experience of the natural environment, which is so fascinating that it calls for soft attention, thereby allowing disengagement” may be one reason practicing mindfulness outdoors may be beneficial. They also suggest that being in nature may lessen our tendency for mind wandering, allowing us to remain in the present rather than “losing concentration completely or becoming emotionally overwhelmed.”
The health benefits of these interventions also differed depending on where and how interventions were delivered. In general, programs that occurred in the wild, and those that used informal mindfulness practices (like open awareness) tended to lead to better health outcomes than those that required formal practices like meditation. Outdoor programs that focused on producing a mindful state, rather than building a mindful disposition, also tended to be linked to greater health improvements. This, researchers contend, may be due to the fact that an outward focus may allow people to more effectively connect with nature, which may be more beneficial when practicing mindfulness in an outdoor setting.
There are a number of questions this review didn’t answer. Existing studies don’t tell us, for example, whether certain types of mindfulness practices might work better in natural settings, or which types of outdoor environments might be best suited for mindfulness training. Although it appears that informal mindfulness practice may be more compatible with outdoor activities, it’s not yet clear why that is the case.
All in all, however, results of the review suggest that nature-based mindfulness practices have positive effects on mental, physical, and social health, and that in some circumstances, taking one’s practice into nature may be preferable to interventions conducted in indoor settings.