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Critical of your body? New research published in the journal Body Image suggests that taking a walk in the woods — or even scrolling through photos of nature on your Instagram feed — may help you like your body more.

Building on a raft of research that shows spending time in nature reduces stress, eases depression and anxiety, and encourages altruism, researchers conducted several studies to evaluate the relationship between exposure to nature and body appreciation.

One set of laboratory studies included British university students who completed the Body Image States Scale — a six-item questionnaire measuring current body-image experiences such as how someone feels about his or her weight, size, and body shape — before and after each test.

One group of students was asked to view photos of natural settings such as lakes, woods, forests, and mountains, while a second group was asked to look at photos of human-made city settings that included buildings, factories, and streets.

The findings revealed that the participants who viewed images of the natural world were significantly more satisfied with their bodies at the end of the experiment than when it started. No shift in attitude was noted in the individuals who viewed images of cityscapes.

After replicating the results in two additional studies, the researchers took their experiments outside of their labs. They asked one group of participants to take a 30- to 35-minute walk in a 790-acre green space that encompasses ponds, hills, grassy open spaces, and wildlife refuges. A second group was asked to traverse a medium-density environment composed of high-rises, offices, garages, and small shops.

Again, participants were asked to complete a body-image report — providing their level of agreement with statements like “I feel good about my body” and “I am comfortable in my body” — before and after their journeys.

Those who had taken the nature walk reported a significantly higher degree of acceptance of their bodies, while scores actually dropped for women who had taken the walk in the urban environment.

Lead author Viren Swami, PhD, offers several reasons exposure to nature might have a positive effect on body image. “It might be that it distances people, physically and mentally, from appearance-focused situations that are one of the causes of negative body image,” he says.

So spending time in nature may mean that people are doing activities that focus attention on the body’s functionality instead of its aesthetics. “It is also possible that exposure to environments with depth and complexity restricts negative appearance-related thoughts,” he adds. “More specifically, natural environments effortlessly hold your attention — a process known as ‘soft fascination.’ This is often accompanied by feelings of pleasure, such as when you are drawn to the sight of a setting sun.”

Looking for ways to take your workouts outside or engage more with nature? Here are a few ideas:

  1. Ditch your earbuds and tune in to the smells and sounds around you instead.
  2. Walk across a log to work on your balance.
  3. If there’s water nearby, swimming, kayaking, and stand-up paddleboarding are great options.
  4. Next time you’re walking in the woods or on a city sidewalk, rather than looking down at the ground, look straight ahead while “softening” your gaze and becoming more aware of objects in your peripheral vision. Notice how you can take in the path beneath your feet, the treetops above you, and your surroundings from the left to right, all at once.
  5. Walk through your backyard or any natural setting and practice some hands-on activities. Touch whatever is around you: tree bark, moss-covered logs, rocks, leaves, grass, and dirt. By feeling the ground with your hands, can you determine whether it’s rained lately? Use your face and your bare feet, as well as your hands, for this exercise. Does an object feel rougher or softer depending on which part of your body touches it?

Thoughts to share?

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