Reducing Stress through the Benefits of Nature

October 12, 2020 | Jody Gatewood

As daylight hours dwindle and the air becomes crisper, thoughts and activities tend to focus less on the outdoors and more on the long winter months inside. And yet, the benefits of the outdoors and experiences with nature in reducing stress apply all year round.

Cortisol, an important stress hormone, has been mentioned a few times in this series on stress. Conditions associated with the pandemic, like decisions related to activities, continued cancellation of events, financial changes and health considerations are all potential sources of stress that can increase cortisol levels. Cortisol may cause our muscles to tense, impact our appetite, and decrease our concentration. Getting outdoors, it turns out, has been shown to reduce cortisol and stress for all ages!

  • A University of Michigan study found 20 minutes outdoors can drop cortisol levels in adults by over 20%.1
  • A review of research on college students discovered as little as 10 minutes in nature increased happiness and reduced both physical and mental stress.2
  • Studies on access to nature have repeatedly shown positive impacts for children related to physical activity, weight, attention, mental health and stress.3

How can you apply the stress reducing benefits of nature to you and your family as the seasons change? Most outdoor advocates insist there is “no bad weather, just bad clothes”, so start with planning ahead for what you might need in colder weather. Dig out hats, scarves, mittens, and coats now, so layers are available when temperatures shift. Next, be intentional about increasing your time outdoors. Take short walk breaks during the daylight hours, pausing to enjoy the changing autumn colors or the crisp scent of snow. Iowa is one of only a few states with a county conservation system – take advantage of this incredible resource! Many county conservation locations have outdoor programs all year where you can try new activities, like fall scavenger hunts or snowshoeing. If you need ideas to get children engaged outdoors, check out resources available through trusted sources such as Nature Explore and Project Wild.

Finding time to get outdoors, especially as the seasons change, can be a challenge, but the benefits related to stress are worth the effort!

  1. Hunter MR, Gillespie BW and Chen SY-P (2019) Urban Nature Experiences Reduce Stress in the Context of Daily Life Based on Salivary Biomarkers. Front. Psychol. 10:722. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00722
  2. Meredith GR, Rakow DA, Eldermire ERB, Madsen CG, Shelley SP and Sachs NA (2020) Minimum Time Dose in Nature to Positively Impact the Mental Health of College-Aged Students, and How to Measure It: A Scoping Review. Front. Psychol. 10:2942. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02942
  3. Together in Nature: Pathways to a Stronger, Closer Family (2013) Children and Family Network.

Written by Cindy Thompson, Human Sciences Specialist-Family Life

Jody Gatewood

Jody Gatewood is a Registered Dietitian who enjoys spending time in the kitchen baking and preparing meals for her family. She does lots of meal planning to stay organized and feed her family nutritious meals.

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