Ten years ago, if I were to suggest that a team schedule recess outside—a twenty-minute break where they hang out in a park or go for a walk in the woods—they would have told me I was being ridiculous. They’d tell me that’s not productive, goofing off like that. We’re stressed and we have to get things done!
Today, it’s no secret that more and more people are in fact, paying more attention to how they integrate “down time” during the day—but many times it’s spent looking at Instagram or Facebook or a cat video. We are missing the point. As busy business professionals, most of us spend our days in front of a computer, at a desk, in an office, or on a plane. The brain hasn’t really caught up with the modern work world—it still likes recess and playtime outside.
When I started looking research on the brain and what we could do to hack it to be more productive, being in nature emerged as one of those ways to be more effective.
Personally, I’ve always been drawn to a good hike or run outside to de-stress and think clearly. My mind buzzes when I start, but then I notice, after about 15 minutes, the thoughts flow through, much like a meditative state, and I’m able to make new connections and solve some of my more interesting problems.
Until I saw some of the research on why that was, I hadn’t really “scheduled” those times to be more productive. I just saw them as a natural part of how I spent the weekend or a lunchtime break. Now, I still enjoy a good walk in the park or weekend hike—and intentionally plan how to spend time in nature to make my brain more productive.
Here are three suggestions for you to try:
1. Go outside—Shinrin Yoku: The Japanese are way ahead of the game on understanding how nature can help the brain and body. They have a word for it, Shinrin Yoku, or “forest bathing” which is essentially spending time in nature—in Japanese forests—to do the body and mind good. The key is not just taking a walk in your neighborhood or in your office, but walking in green space—with trees and grasses—refreshes the mind, improves your mood, and reduces the stress hormone cortisol. One of the studies showed a 20 minute forest walk increased cerebral blood flow in the brain (compared to an urban setting) in a manner indicating a state of relaxation. Find the nearest park, garden, or woods near where you’re working and plan some time to clear your mind.
2. Keep moving: Now that you’re in the woods or a park, move! Don’t just sit and contemplate, it turns out actually moving—a brisk walk or job—helps your brain. The research on BDNF or Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor, a critical protein for healthy neurons shows that moving more increases BDNF, particularly in the hippocampus—a critical part of your brain for learning and memory.
3. Get green: Even though it’d be nice to work outside every day—or have the luxury of being surrounded by green, I know the realities of most office spaces, and they are the opposite. There are barriers within our own hectic work days to get out for a walk. It turns out you can “simulate” nature and have a very similar effect. Whether it’s a walk by the windows to see outside, a nature screen saver, a plant at your desk—surrounding yourself with a reasonable approximation of nature can be restorative as well.