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Spending More Time in Nature Can Help You Feel Better About Your Body

Woman in nature looking at the mountains.

Jordan Siemens / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Spending time in nature may strengthen cognitive processes that help people cope when they are feeling negative about their body.
  • Many factors, such as nature’s interaction with the brain and time away from technology may explain this finding.
  • Ensuring everyone can access natural environments is crucial for supporting well-being.

On days when you’re struggling with negative thoughts about your body, many different coping mechanisms can help. But new research suggests you should get outside and spend time in nature to soothe those feelings.

Negative body image is a risk factor for behaviors like disordered eating, which can have disastrous consequences for one’s body, mind, and relationships. Nowadays, it can be harder to avoid negative body thoughts when navigating social media.

Because of all this, Viren Swami, PhD, professor of social psychology at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, England, views negative body image as a major public health concern worldwide. His research focuses on ways to promote body acceptance.

Most recently, he and colleagues found that spending more time in nature may support cognitive processes that help people bounce back when they’re plagued with negative thoughts about their bodies. The study was published in the journal Ecopsychology in early January.

“I’m hopeful that the research I do—alongside the research that many other scholars are engaged in—will one day mean that our children grow up in societies where they are valued and cared for because of their competencies, rather than for what they look like,” Swami told Verywell via email.

Nature Can Help Us Cope

Being in natural environments—as opposed to built environments, like cities and highways—has repeatedly been linked to having a positive body image in previous research. Even seeing pictures of trees, mountains, and lakes may, at least temporarily, can calm negative self-talk about your appearance.

To investigate how nature helps us feel better about our bodies, Swami and colleagues surveyed about 400 people on their body appreciation, exposure to nature, and “positive rational acceptance,” or how often they use strategies to help themselves feel better about their bodies.

What Is Positive Rational Acceptance?

The term “positive rational acceptance” comes from a subscale of the Body Image Coping Strategies Inventory, which is used to assess the extent to which individuals rely on activities and thoughts that emphasize “positive self-care, rational self-talk, and acceptance of one’s experiences in the face of threats to body image.” For example, how often do you remind yourself of what you like about yourself when your body acceptance is feeling low?

After collecting all the responses, Swami noticed that as participants’ time spent in nature (city parks, beaches, rural areas, etc.) increased, so did their body appreciation and positive rational acceptance.

They then ran further analyses and found, according to Swami, that those who spent more time in nature were more likely to cope with negative body image in a positive, rational manner. This coping strategy, then, may have allowed them to develop more appreciation for their body.

Limitations

These results may illuminate one of the ways in which nature exposure helps people defend themselves against negative body self-talk. However, it’s important to keep in mind that survey answers reflect a small, not particularly diverse sample of adults.

Although participants covered a large age range—from 18 to 76—they were otherwise homogeneous. All participants were also located in the United Kingdom, and the majority identified as White and heterosexual. There’s no mention of disability status, so it’s hard to say whether these findings apply to people with disabilities, visible or not.

Additionally, this study is correlational. In other words, individuals who have more positive body image coping mechanisms may be more likely to spend time in nature. The authors note that the study’s design can’t confirm a causal connection between time in nature and positive rational self-talk.

Many Factors at Play

So why does increased exposure to nature help us cope with negative body image?

Exercise and fresh air may support that positive feeling. But given that even pictures of nature may offer a boost in how we feel toward our bodies, the physical experience alone does not explain the findings.

Swami suspects that there are many factors at play here. Perhaps looking at and/or being in natural environments supports cognitive processes related to self-control and logical assessment, which can promote rational self-talk.

Also, nature exposure has already been associated with self-esteem and optimism, he said, which can improve attention. That is, nature might support living in the moment and paying attention to what’s in front of you, without as much judgment or obsessive thinking.

Being truly unplugged, too, makes time feel like it’s going by more slowly. Imagine sitting on a park bench or on the beach for hours, not looking at a phone or any other electronics. These kinds of experiences, Swami added, might “give individuals the space to develop more rational appraisals of [body image] threats.”

Fewer opportunities for comparing yourself to others on social media, too, might have something to do with it.

What This Means For You

If you're struggling with negative feelings about your body, getting outside and immersing yourself in nature can help soothe some of those thoughts. Try going for a long walk or heading to a nearby park to clear your mind.

One Organization Supporting This Connection to Nature

To Nícola Wagenberg, PhD, a clinical and cultural psychologist based in San Francisco, these results aren’t at all surprising. Sometimes by just being immersed in nature, Wagenberg said, we can feel connected to and part of something larger.

While Wagenberg doesn’t see her clients in natural environments, she does facilitate programs that do. One of them is Guardians of the Waters (GOTW) at the Cultural Conservancy, which brings urban Native American youth into nature to do activities that connect them to Indigenous culture, tradition, and history.

Many of the activities GOTW youth engage in connect them with the land. For example, one activity involves learning how to build traditional canoes. Another involves eating the foods Indigenous people grew on the land, cooked, and ate hundreds of years ago.

By connecting to their Indigenous roots through food, land, and water, Wagenberg said, GOTW youth have been able to confront tough topics, such as body shame and pressure to conform to Western beauty ideals.

“[After completing the program] you hear these young women [in GOTW] saying they feel completely different about their bodies,” Wagenberg said.

A Need for Equal Access to Nature

More research will be needed to understand how exactly nature boosts body acceptance. However, Swami said, it’s all part of a larger goal to justify the need for equal access to nature.“I can’t think of a more cost-effective way of ensuring health benefits than through exposure to natural environments,” Swami said.

Negative body image can lead to disordered eating, depression, low self-esteem, and lower confidence. What’s more, those who are more vulnerable to negative body image may have less access to nature, and vice versa.

“Access to natural environments is often unequal—being affected by gender, race, and socioeconomic class, which means that those social identity groups that would most benefit from the body-image related outcomes of nature exposure are often marginalized from such spaces,” the authors wrote.

Swami emphasized this doesn’t have to stay this way. “I want to try and change that—by giving individuals, families, communities, and policy-makers the tools and knowledge to develop and promote healthier body image,” Swami added.

This all hinges on sociopolitical change, he noted. But more tools and information, including research, are pointing to the importance of natural spaces for our health. “When people have access to nature, they are more likely to use those spaces, feel connected to nature, and make healthier lifestyle choices,” Swami said.

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