Where mind and body heal

The scientific solace of open spaces

When you conserve open land, you protect a place where great things happen. One great benefit is restoration. Restoring the banks of a creek increases biodiversity along its edges. Planting native plants shades and protects the trees of the future.

But some of the most important restoration work occurs elsewhere: in the minds of people visiting open spaces.

Open lands open minds, cool tempers, and improve overall health in ways distinct and broad.

No matter where you fall philosophically on the divide between mind and body, health insurers view significant links between mental and physical health. Blue Cross Blue Shield estimate people experiencing severe depression will experience more years of healthy life lost than cigarette smokers. Other mental health challenges can foster unhealthy habits and lifestyles.

Thankfully, the mental health benefits of natural open land are measurable and lasting, and they take effect quicker than you’d expect: among green spaces, cortisol levels stabilize, test scores improve, and self-esteem rises.

Here are three benefits of open land for mind and body.

1. Our minds were made to grow around open space

Both correlational and experimental research have shown that interacting with nature has cognitive benefits—a topic University of Chicago psychologist Marc Berman, PhD, and his student Kathryn Schertz explored in a 2019 study titled Understanding Nature and Its Cognitive Benefits. Previous research showed green spaces near schools promote cognitive development in children and green views near children’s homes promote self-control behaviors. Berman and Schertz also charted improvements in working memory performance when people encounter natural stimuli rather than urban ones.

When looking at what makes this so, the researchers made a surprising finding: “low-level features,” the natural look of things—nature’s irregular messiness—puts our mind in order, improves working memory and cognitive-flexibility, and even inspires more holistic and spiritual thinking.

When shown images with a greater number of nonstraight edges, people were more likely to think about topics related to spirituality and one’s life journey, compared with when they were viewing images with fewer nonstraight edges, independently of the perceived naturalness of the scene
(Berman and Schertz).

Even in a county like ours with healthy buffers between cities, many kids grow up without safely accessible green spaces nearby. Like food deserts in cities, an insufficiency of plants and nature amounts to an undernourishment of the soul, and a reduction of the full experience of life.

2. Open spaces enable healing hobbies

It takes a long time to develop a skill or hobby that will fill the years. In our busy lives, it can feel like the window is closing on picking up new passions. But open land is where we correct this false notion: where birdwatchers are hatched, photographers find subjects, and volunteers learn new construction skills.

Pursuing crafts and hobbies like painting has been shown to reduce cortisol levels (a hormone marker for stress), and these levels dropped regardless of one’s prior artmaking experience. When groups form, these natural defenses get much stronger, because participation in a team activity decreases anxiety and depression.

Birdwatching is an especially good activity. Some people feel overwhelmed in outdoor spaces or uncertain of what to do. Birdwatching gives a stress-free purpose on the land and a means to collaborate with others in a wholesome endeavor.

The benefits of this hobby are so strong that the medical community is starting to take notice as author Christopher W. Leahy observes in “Teaching your mind to fly: The Psychological benefits of birdwatching.”

Health clinics are now partnering with birding education programs at conservation organizations such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in the UK to provide a unique and effective form of psychological support.

3. Open spaces give a natural setting for physical activities

Exercise boosts self-esteem, decreases anxiety, and improves mood. Getting back into the swing of regular exercise can be a challenge. Not everyone thrives on costly gyms, the company of other exercisers, the frustration of mixed results and recurring setbacks.

One of the best ways to meet one’s physical activity  goals is to identify a few favorite routes in parks and walk them end to end. Observing a bird’s nest or searching for seasonal wildflowers puts exercise under your belt while your mind is free to follow other interests. Two of our public properties, Rush Ranch and Jepson Prairie, are flat and easily strolled; Lynch Canyon and the Swett Ranches require more vigorous hikes.

In blog post from Harvard Health Publishing asking “How much cardio should you do?,” the author recommends routines that works even for crammed schedules.

The Physical Activity Guidelines issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommend at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity physical activity—think of it as 30 minutes, five days a week—for all adults, even the elderly and disabled. 

For vigorous exercise, meanwhile, the numbers can drop by half—twenty-five minutes three times a week!

As further studies trace the links between mental health and open land, you can expect to learn more exciting connections. But while minds and landscapes are mysterious and vast, the human need for open space is a no-brainer, something intuitively known by anyone who has ever taken a walk to clear their head.

And the more open space that you protect, the greater the benefits will be!