Is flicking on the television after a long day really helping you “relax”? As one of the most popular recreational pass-times, television provides seemingly mindless entertainment for many people who use it as an outlet to unwind, recover, or simply capture their attention in a fascinating manner. Despite this, studies show that watching TV is misleading in its restoring abilities.

After a long day of class, I use to find a quiet corner of a coffee shop, throw my headphones in, and click on some Netflix. Little did I know, my show watching was counterproductive to my goal of giving my brain a mental break. Although gazing at a screen for hours on end would appear to only require involuntary attention, shows, movies, news, etc., are all designed to suck you in to keep watching.

So what’s the catch?

In order to capture your attention, television programs often contain emotionally charged scenes that often provoke a reaction from the viewer, whether that may be a laugh, a cringe, or a strong desire to look away. It is these reactions that can, in turn, use up your direct attention resources, inhibiting you from truly relaxing. Direct attention requires focus and involves self-regulation and stimulation of higher cognitive mechanisms. As a result, direct attention is a resource that can be significantly depleted, especially after a long exhausting day.

How can you actually unwind and replenish at the end of the day? Exchange time spent behind the screen for time spent outside in nature.

It might seem obvious that engaging with nature rather than sitting inside watching TV is better for both your mental and physical health, but taking a stroll down a wooded trail can be even more beneficial than you think. Based on the studies observing the cognitive benefits of nature walks versus urban setting walks, finding environments that provide a soft fascination, such as nature, stimulates your involuntary attention while not straining your finite direct attention resources. This can decrease mental exhaustion, allow you to focus more, and even lower feelings of aggression. Clearly, a quick stroll through the park not only allows you to take in some fresh air and get some steps in, but can improve your overall mental state of mind. Next time you are looking for more than surface level relaxation, switch off the TV and get outside!

Although the benefits of interacting with nature on a daily basis should provide enough of an incentive to get people up and out, not everyone has the time and proper environment. With long work days and over scheduling, allotting time for a daily stroll is not always a feasible option. So what can you do to get your dose of nature in? Bring the nature to you! Research shows that surrounding yourself with greenery, especially in the workplace, can improve productivity, alertness, and concentration, while reducing stress, poor moods, and lethargy. Given this, not only will a few potted plants bring a better aesthetic to your desk space, but they can help you be a better employee.

As technology exponentially advances and more and more people find themselves confined to long hours at the office, researchers are continuously proposing a large range of solutions to help people combat the health implications of sitting at a desk all day. As reported on by the New York Times, architects such as those involved in CookFox projects in Manhattan, are currently working on remodeling office spaces to mimic more natural environments. Through including natural materials into elements such as a planted wall feature, those involved with CookFox hope to limit the health implications of sitting inside at a desk all day.

Parallel with increased focus on the effects of worsening climate change, people can gain more appreciation for the environment when they are aware of the many benefits spending time in and around nature can have in regards to their personal health. Meanwhile, misconceptions of revitalizing activities such as watching TV, can help educate people on the most restorative manners of relaxation. Whether freeing up direct attention resources or reducing stress at work, engaging with nature is essential.

Can’t give up your binge watching in exchange for some quality time with nature? A softly fascinating virtual reality simulation might be your future calling. In the meantime, while you’re not gazing at your screen, take in the restorative green view of your new desk plants.

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