Walking outside can help you get along with your family, study finds

Walking with your family can do wonders. (Photo: Getty Images)
Walking with your family can do wonders. (Photo: Getty Images)

If your holiday plans involve shopping with the family to extend your quality time together, you might want to rethink that strategy. A new scientific study shows that a quick walk in nature is a better way to tune out distractions and feel all warm and fuzzy about each other.

The benefits of a walk in the woods or a park aren’t just the stuff of poetry and wall calendars. There’s an increasing body of scientific evidence showing that, among other things, nature helps the mind relax and reset because of a theory called attention restoration.

“We know that nature has a powerful effect on individuals because it helps restore mental fatigue,” Dina Izenstark, assistant professor of Child and Adolescent Development at San Jose State University, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “We believe those individual benefits can translate to family interactions in that when family members are less mentally fatigued, they have the potential to get along better with one another.”

Izenstark and Aaron T. Ebata from the University of Illinois decided to test that theory by looking at how mothers and daughters interacted with each other after a walk in a mall, versus after a walk in a natural setting. They published their findings in a recent issue of the journal Children, Youth and Environments.

Pairs of mothers and daughters (ages 10 to 12) completed a series of math problems to make them feel mental fatigue before they were told to drive to either a nearby small indoor mall or a tree-lined park, where they had to walk together for 20 minutes. Before and after their walks, they took a test to measure their attention level. After the walks, they had to work with each other to solve puzzles. The results showed that after the walks in the malls, the mothers had no change in attention level, but after the walk in the park, the mothers’ attention levels improved. The girls’ attention levels improved after walks in both settings.

The really interesting result here is how the mothers and daughters got along and worked together to solve the puzzles. Researchers scored their interactions to measure what they call “dyadic cohesion,” and after the walks in the park, that score was significantly higher.

“These results highlight how the quality of interactions in regards to sense of unity, togetherness, and working as a team improved between the mother and daughter,” Izenstark tells Yahoo.

Barbara Greenberg, a clinical psychologist specializing in adolescent and family issues, is happy to see this experiment hold up what she’s been telling clients for years.

“In a mall, there are so many opportunities for distractions and for getting into conflict about clothing choices and what to purchase,” Greenberg tells Yahoo. “Walking in nature, all the mother and daughter have to do is attend to one another.”

Greenberg also thinks walking together helps people talk because they’re freed from having to look into each other’s faces. “Kids who may be a little skittish about opening up to their mothers have a little bit of a veil [when walking] because they don’t have eye contact, so I think they will take more risks,” she says. “I think walking with somebody or driving with somebody are wonderful ways to start communication.”

One more factor shared with both of the experimental settings was that the participants didn’t have phones with them.

“We wanted to set them up for the best chance of attention restoration by further removing them from everyday stressors and responsibilities,” Izenstark explains.

While Izenstark and Ebata will continue their research into nature and family interactions (testing the theory on fathers and sons, for instance), they hope people can take a hint from this study right away.

“After our study, so many mothers kept saying they didn’t realize it only takes 20 minutes [to benefit from a walk], and that it doesn’t always have to be a big trip to a national park or an all-day event,” Izenstark says. “We hope that when family members are feeling stressed or mentally fatigued, they decide to get outside and take a walk together to restore their attention and improve the quality of their family relationships.”

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