Fall is officially here. Which means you've unpacked the cozy sweaters, ordered your first pumpkin spice latte and dusted off those leather boots from the back of the closet.
Is planning an apple-picking adventure also on your to-do list this fall? We know the pastime is a fun way to spend a weekend with friends and enjoy that crisp autumn air (and delicious cider). But you may be surprised to learn just how good spending time hanging in an orchard can be. Here's what's going on in your brain and body when you pick a peck:
You get a rush of calm
Being immersed in nature — and an orchard totally counts—automatically sends simmer down signals to your brain. "Time in nature is associated with more positive emotions and fewer negative ones. People report feeling a greater sense of vitality, which means they feel more energized and alive," says Lisa K. Nisbet, PhD, associate professor in the psychology department at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario. Hence, why you want to skip in between the rows of apple trees…
One big reason for these feel good vibes: being among the trees turns down the volume on your stress response. Japanese research has found that being in tree-lined environments reduces cortisol, lowers heart rate and blood pressure, and helps enhance your parasympathetic nervous system, which tells your body to relax. However, it may also be that because nature allows for the opportunity to explore, notes Nisbet, it can deliver a restorative break for your brain away from the built environment of a city. In other words, being around offices, stores and concrete can deplete cognitive resources like attention and focus, but greenery (and yes, the vibrant red apples) restores that.
You feel more connected to your apple-picking buds
Being out in the crisp air, surrounded by apple trees brings a multitude of emotions, including awe, wonder, joy, fascination and curiosity. Nature catches your attention: you're interested in how the apples are growing, what colors they are and how they smell. "Feeling connected to nature improves your interactions with anyone you're with," says Nisbet. "It's wonderful to be out on your own in nature, but we enjoy sharing this experience with others," she adds. In fact, nature can enhance your pro-social attitude during the event and after. Not only do you tap into cooperation (gotta pick the apples together) and generosity (you can help each other reach a branch), but you take these things with you afterwards.
It can strengthen your sense of well-being
If you're not an "outdoors" person, you may have balked when your partner or pal suggested an apple picking excursion. And while it's true that they may enjoy the hayride out to the orchard or appreciate interacting with the trees more than you, it doesn't mean you still won't benefit. Nisbet points to Australian research that found that spending just 30 minutes outside per week can reduce the rate of depression and high blood pressure on a population by 7 and 9 percent, respectively.
And don't forget to take this lesson from the orchard home with you: Now that you feel more at ease, keep the good vibes flowing with daily hits of nature. Look at the birds when you get off the train, grab an herbal tea at your local coffee shop and head out to a park bench for a mid-afternoon breather and look out your office window from time to time. Some apple orchards are a far drive, especially if you live in a city, and while these trips away are invaluable, so, too, are the little, daily hits of nature on the regular.
You get closer to the environment
"When you go apple picking, you're thinking about where your food comes from, which can enrich the connection you have with the environment," says Nisbet. Of course you know that food doesn't come from the grocery store, but it's easy to forget that point when you're zipping through to get ingredients for dinner. Being at an orchard forces you to step back and understand how your food grows, which you may learn to appreciate more, she notes.
You'll leave happy
Go on, take a big ol bite while you're still there. In fact, eat the whole thing. One study published in the British Journal of Health Psychology found that on days young adults ate more fruits and veggies they reported a greater sense of well-being, curiosity and creativity than on days when they skimped on produce. Though the researchers can't say if packing in the produce directly causes this brain perk, they note that it may be the array of vitamins and antioxidants that increases feel-good neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin in the brain. It may also be the carbs that help produce these happy noggin' chemicals.
What's more, when apple picking becomes a tradition, it delivers an even greater hit of joy. Combining rituals in the comfort of family brings the biggest boost in enjoyment, suggests a 2016 study. Guess it's time to get this year's apple picking date on the calendar.