What is it about going outside and getting some fresh air that clears our head, improves our focus and performance, and reduces stress? It might be the tranquility of nature that does it. In fact, research has found that the peaceful element of nature — whether we are experiencing it firsthand by being outdoors or simply looking at pictures of it — can significantly improve cognitive function. Whatever the case, there is something about nature that makes us feel calmer, happier, and just plain good.
Unfortunately, the older we get, the less meaningful time we tend to spend outdoors. Going outside simply becomes a way to get from point A to point B — like from a car to an office building, where the majority of the day is spent in front of a computer or in meetings. Sadly, this trend often continues into the senior years, when physical limitations make it even harder to get outside and spend some time surrounded by nature.
But for seniors especially, the importance of going outdoors on a daily basis becomes more than just a matter of getting some fresh air; it has been shown to actually reduce cognitive decline.
In one study, researchers in Japan set out to find out if going outdoors regularly could actually improve seniors’ scores on specific cognition tests called verbal fluency tasks (VRTs).
Twenty healthy older adults, aged 66–89, participated in this study. None of the participants had a history of psychiatric illness, depression, dementia or other major neurological conditions, nor did they have any problems with cognitive decline.
Researchers assessed the frequency of going outdoors by asking participants whether they had been to places in their neighborhood and town during the past four weeks. Responses they could choose were: daily, four to six times a week, one to three times a week, less than once a week, or none. Based on their responses, seven people were classified in a “daily” group, and the remaining 13 were classified as “non-daily.”
During VRT testing, participants were fitted with sensors to measure brain activation, and then told to relax their eyes and fixate on a circle in front of them. The participants were then told to retrieve as many words as possible beginning with “Shi,” “I,” and “Re,” each in a 60-second period with a 70-second rest in between tests.
Researchers found that those who went outdoors daily had increased oxygenated hemoglobin levels in the prefrontal cortex part of the brain during their VRTs, meaning this group had greater brain activation than the non-daily group. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for cognitive analysis and abstract thought. Just some of the functions include focusing attention, problem solving, foreseeing consequences of certain behaviors, strategic planning, impulse control and making complex decisions when faced with challenging circumstances.
They concluded that “going outdoors may contribute to successful oxygenation during the performance of cognitive tasks.”
Simply put, this means that going out and getting some fresh air can actually help your brain perform cognitive tasks better.
There could be a couple reasons for this. As mentioned earlier, just being in nature has a positive effect on the brain that has yet to be fully understood. But in addition to that, going outdoors often enhances a person’s engagement in social interaction, and studies have shown that participating in face-to-face conversation activates the frontal and superior temporal regions of the brain. And brain activation, particularly in the prefrontal cortex, is heightened even further when these face-to-face interactions also include walking or some other form of exercise.
Fresh Air Freshens the Brain
Research has definitely proven what most of us innately knew — that there really is merit to going outside and getting fresh air. While this study focused on older adults, the results can be translated to people of all ages, even young children. In fact, being outdoors on a regular basis helps kids perform better in school, reduces the risk of ADHD, and reduces their stress level in a matter of minutes.
So what are you waiting for? Get up right now and go outside, even if it’s only for 5 or 10 minutes. Walk around the block, enjoy your surroundings and allow any stress and tension you’re carrying to melt away. If you can’t break away right now, then take a walk with your spouse and/or family after dinner. On the weekends, take your children to the park and let them run around and explore their surroundings. And why not join them and play like a kid yourself?
Lastly, if you have an older relative living in an assisted living facility or nursing home, make sure they get outside every single day, weather permitting. Most reputable senior living facilities are very good about doing this, but it’s still not a bad idea to make sure your loved one is getting the daily outdoor time he/she needs.
 Jacobs JM et al. Going outdoors daily predicts long-term functional and health benefits among ambulatory older people. J Aging Health. 2008 Apr;20(3):259–72.
 Makizako H et al. Relationship between going outdoors daily and activation of the prefrontal cortex during verbal fluency tasks (VFTs) among older adults: A near-infrared spectroscopy study. Arch Gerontol Geriatr. 2012. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.archger.2012.08.017.
 Suda M et al. Frontopolar activation during face-to-face conversation: an in situ study using near-infrared spectroscopy. Neuropsychologia. 2010 Jan;48(2):441–7.
 Kuo FE and Taylor AF. A potential natural treatment for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder: Evidence from a national study. Am J Public Health. 2004 Sep;94(9): 1580–86.