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Can the outdoors really make us feel better?

Research shows being around nature is great for our mental well-being.


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April 20, 2017

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The cold weather is an easy excuse to keep us indoors. Staying out of the wintery elements and binge watching TV may seem like the easiest go-to. But that could have a negative impact on your mental health.

We are learning more about how spending too much time inside, or around electronics instead of going outside, is doing more damage than we thought. Traci Kubisiak, HealthPartners Senior Manager of Health and Care Engagement Consulting, goes into more detail about Nature Deficit Disorder.

What is Nature Deficit Disorder (NDD)?

Nature Deficit Disorder is a phrase thought up by author Richard Louv in his 2005 book, “Last Child in the Woods.” He found that everyone, especially children, are spending less time outdoors. The result is a negative impact on mental and physical health.

Even if you haven’t heard the phrase before, most of us would agree that the next generation spends less time outside. But, why? It could be more people are living in cities, there are more technology distractions, or they are worried about safety.

How does nature impact our mental health?

Try this exercise: close your eyes and take a mental journey to your most peaceful and happy place. Where is that place? Many of us would find ourselves thinking of an outdoor space. Perhaps a sandy beach, or a snow-covered mountain. These are the images that relax us. Rarely would we think about our office cube, our living room, or being in a car. Nature does something to our brains. It calms us, helps us focus, and gives us a renewed sense of being.

Research also supports this theory. In 2016, National Geographic printed a study called Your Brain on Nature. It found those who lived near green spaces reported less mental stress. This was constant even when they adjusted for income, education and employment status.

Another study found that the impact of life stress and adversity was lower among children who lived close to nature than among those with little access to natural settings.

According to the Children & Nature Network, “nature-deficit disorder contributes to a diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, conditions of obesity, and higher rates of emotional and physical illnesses.”

That’s why doctors at our clinics in the St. Croix Valley have started writing prescriptions for kids to get out and explore local parks. The PowerUp in the Parks Rx program encourages kids to bike, hike, play, paddle, go geocaching and more in city, county and state parks.

Who is most vulnerable?

Although much of the research has been done on children, it can affect adults too. We are wired to be connected to nature and the more time we spend away from it, the more our brains crave it!

Several years ago, I spent a season as an adventure travel leader in the western United States. There was a striking difference between day one of our trips and the last day. At the beginning, adults coming off the plane to join us seemed stressed and tired. But when they left, they were joyful and refreshed after a week of being outside.

Why do you think people get NDD?

We have engineered ourselves away from nature. What is most practical for our daily lives (buildings, curtains, cube walls, computer screens) is exactly what is causing us to detach from what can help us re-focus and re-energize.

Here is another exercise to try. Think of the words “wilderness” or “nature.” What words and images come to mind?

Mountains? Forests? Canyons? Rivers, lakes, or streams?

Chances are these thoughts elicit positive emotions. According to research on emotional wellness at the University of North Carolina, “positive emotions expand our awareness and open us up to new ideas, so we can grow and add to our toolkit for survival.” This toolkit is our emotional resilience. Here at HealthPartners, we define resilience as the ability to bounce back, bend without breaking, and cope without giving in.

What can we do to stop NDD?

We need nature. And we need to be in it as much as possible. If we can’t physically be there, then looking out a window or at pictures of nature could serve as a temporary substitute.

According to the researchers at Cornell, it is important to give children plenty of opportunities to play outside in natural settings. You can do this by:

  • Landscaping your yard to enhance natural window views.
  • Positioning your child’s (and your) desk to face a natural window view.
  • Taking family outings to natural areas.
  • If possible, choosing a house or apartment with access to nearby nature or at least views of nature.

In a workplace, views of nature, outdoor access and natural light can have a positive impact on productivity. Researchers at the Neuroscience Program at Northwestern University in Chicago found a strong relationship: If an employee can see daylight at work, they saw positive impact on their sleep, activity and quality of life. Many workplaces are starting to design workspaces that allow for outdoor tables, more windows and open office plans. These can increase natural light and window access.

Keep in mind that being outside doesn’t mean you have to be doing something active. Taking some time to slow down and just reflect while being out in nature has its benefits as well.

For resources to combat NDD, visit:

For more resources about mental health, please visit:

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