The Natural Outdoor Remedy That Will Help You Build A Stronger Brain

Photo: Jayme Burrows

Ever wonder why you experience mental blocks or sometimes feel a bit lethargic even when you sleep well? What if there was a natural "super pill" with only positive side effects that has been shown to increase creativity, reduce stress, and enhance memory? The cognitive effects of moving outside have benefited humanity for millennia, but in recent years we’ve neglected the ultimate bio-hack: outdoor exercise.

Is it possible that the way we think is inseparably tied to how we move? Neuroscientist and engineer Daniel Wolpert suggests that "to understand movement is to understand the brain, and therefore it is important to remember when you are studying memory, cognition, and sensory processing that there is a reason, and that reason is action."

If movement is completely integrated with our cognitive function, does the environment we move in matter? Researcher Yoshifumi Miyazaki of Chiba University emphatically says yes and has shown that as little as a 15-minute walk in the woods induces measurable effects on the body and brain. He sent 84 participants through several different forests and the same number of people through various city centers. Unsurprisingly, the forest dwellers reaped much more benefit from the experience: They showed a 16 percent decrease in the stress hormone cortisol, 2 percent reduction in blood pressure, and a 4 percent drop in heart rate comparatively.

It appears we can create somewhat of a "perfect storm" by combining the brain-building benefits of movement with the advantages of spending time in nature. Here's why:

1. It's hard to beat breathing outside.

Breathing in nature is connected to reducing levels of stress hormones that cause you to think and feel better. Notice next time you walk into a new space that your first inclination is likely to take a breath to gather new information about a new location. Your body then subconsciously changes its physiological state to suit the environment. Pretty amazing, right?

2. Being barefoot in nature is a game-changer.

Gain balance and engage your nervous system by moving on varied surfaces with minimal footwear. Pediatric specialist Kacie Flegal has stated, "One of the simplest ways to motivate the proprioceptive and vestibular development is to let our babies be barefoot as much as possible." This certainly applies to adults as well, considering the brain is continually forming neuronal pathways to fit the environment.

Just one note: This is a practice and should be taken very seriously by those who are not accustomed to minimal footwear. It’s a gradual process to build the muscular and neurological competence if you’ve spent your life in supported shoes, so don't go too hard too fast!

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3. The best ideas come to us while we're outside and on the move.

A study out of Stanford University found that 81 percent of test subjects experienced increased creativity as a product of walking outside rather than being inside or being pushed in a wheelchair outside. The brain-boosting effects of taking your workout outside are hard to beat, apparently.

4. Moving outside works wonders for your memory.

Memory and cognitive performance are enhanced by moving outside at a varied speed of individual preference rather than a set speed like that of a treadmill or sitting. The freedom of movement you find in an expansive outdoor space along with the contoured terrain for your brain and body to navigate simply can't compare to an indoor environment.

No matter how you look at it, our brains thrive on movement, and our movement is directly correlated with the function of our brain. If you want to think better, move better. If you want to move better, build your brain with appropriate stimuli. At the end of the day, it’s about stacking variables of mental and physical development in our favor by not just "exercising" but doing so in an adaptive environment to boost the benefits.

Want to learn more about the healing powers of the outdoors? Here's how snowboarding healed one woman's broken heart.

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