- Brain structure improves with time spent outdoors, regardless of sun exposure, activity, or other factors, according to new research.
- The researchers believe fresh air may be behind the brain-building benefits.
As cyclists, we all enjoy the sun on our faces and the wind in our hair (albeit through our vents). Now, according to a recent study published in the World Journal of Biological Psychiatry, we can add an increase in gray matter to the benefits of driving outdoors, as driving in the fresh air literally reshapes your brain.
That’s right, being outside actually increases the volume of gray matter in the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), a part of the brain associated with executive functions like working memory, planning, and selective attention.
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In order to study the influence of time outdoors on the brain, the researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin recruited six healthy employees between the ages of 24 and 32 and recorded their time outdoors, leisure time, physical activity, fluid intake, and caffeine intake for six to eight months while having MRI brain scans about twice a week. To take into account the effect of seasonal changes, the researchers also took into account the duration of sunshine.
The study was very small, but since they were all staff members at the facility, many brain scans were done – more than 280 MRIs during the study period.
The researchers found that regardless of all other factors, time outdoors – even small amounts – was associated with a greater volume of gray matter in the DLPFC part of the brain. The more time outdoors, the higher the gray matter. When all factors were taken into account, the degree of change in brain structure attributable to outdoor time was 3 percent, which is consistent with the structural improvements associated with known brain-building activities such as exercise and cognitive training.
“Our results show that our brain structure and mood improve when we spend time outdoors. This will most likely also affect concentration, working memory and the psyche as a whole, ”Dr. Simone Kühn, head of the Lise Meitner group for environmental neurosciences at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development and first author of the study, says a press release.
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What is behind the brain-building effects of nature is still unknown, but the researchers suspect that fresh air could be one of the key factors.
“We don’t yet know what the mechanism could be,” Kühn told the bicycle. “One potential candidate is air quality. Indoor air quality can be surprisingly poor compared to outdoor spaces, even in busy cities. There is also evidence that terpenes – the essential oil of trees – can have positive effects on the human immune system, ”said Kühn.
In fact, according to research on “forest bathing” or lingering among trees, these terpenes are not only anti-inflammatory but also neuroprotective, meaning they protect your brain from injury and promote regeneration.
Whatever the cause, every trip to work, errands on a bike, or a jaunt in the fresh air is doing something good for your fitness and well-being, as well as your brain.
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