Spending Time in Nature Could Be the Key to Combating Stress

Find out how much time you should spend outdoors for better mental—and physical—health.

You may not have heard that spending time in nature is associated with some pretty amazing health benefits, but it's true. From protection from chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease and obesity, to improved mental health, the benefits of spending time in the great outdoors are so great doctors are now prescribing visits to nature to their patients. And recent studies are helping us determine how often we need to be getting outdoors to reap these amazing benefits.

A review of studies from Cornell University was published this week examining the effects of nature on students between the ages of 16-30. This review of 14 studies, published in Frontiers in Psychology, found that 10-50 minutes sitting or walking in natural spaces helped improve mood, focus and physiological markers like blood pressure and heart rate. Getting even more time outdoors still offered the benefits, but they tended to plateau after 50 minutes. Interestingly enough, simply being outside didn't cut it—students experienced greater health benefits in a green space (think: a park or hiking trail) instead of being in an urbanized setting.

This review was part of a larger initiative to examine "nature therapy" and determine a reasonable dosage that physicians could prescribe for mental health issues college students face today. The authors of this study believe further research is needed before prescribing time in nature to prevent or treat stress, anxiety and other mental and physical health outcomes.

Studies done in Japan have found that after being in the woods—anywhere from 10 minutes to several hours—participants' blood pressure and heart rates measurably decreased. Intriguingly, levels of the immune system's natural killer cells, which help fight off viruses and defend against diseases like cancer, jumped as well. Bathing yourself in nature also tamps down the body's stress response and reduces anxiety, says Marc Farrow, a physical therapist, certified Forest Therapy guide and founder of Winston-Salem Forest Bathing in North Carolina. In a 2019 research review he published in Global Advances in Health and Medicine, there was a strong correlation between being in nature and an uptick in subjects' heart-rate variability, which signals an ability to adapt to stress.

Another study from the European Centre for Environment and Human Health set out to discover the parameters of these associations and just how much time we need to be spending in nature to truly reap the physical and mental health boosts. Their research found spending 120 minutes—or two hours—per week in nature is associated with significant levels of improved health and positive well-being.

woman running in a sunny field with a dog
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The research team analyzed almost 20,000 participants from the Monitor of Engagement with the Natural Environment Survey in England from 2014-2016 for this study. They were asked "How is your health in general?" and could respond with "very bad," "bad," "fair," "good," or "very good." They also had to rank how satisfied they were with their lives on a scale of 1-10, and record their weekly activities.

Compared to those who had no nature contact in the week prior, those who spent 120 minutes or more outdoors each week had a significantly greater likelihood of reporting good health and high mental well-being. Positive associations peaked when people spent between 200-300 minutes (or between 3 and 5 hours) a week. Those who were in the woods longer had no greater benefits. It also didn't matter how the 120 minutes was achieved each week, whether that was a few long walks in the woods, or simply eating lunch outside every day.

The Bottom Line

This research lines up with dozens of other studies that find better mental and physical health comes from regularly enjoying some fresh air. Chronic stress, heart disease, diabetes and other prominent health conditions all seem to be positively impacted by simply getting some time outdoors, and it looks like we could all use more of it!

So, if you can, try taking your lunch break outside. Soak up some vitamin D and get away from that desk chair. If you can find a few days a week to exercise outdoors, that's a double-whammy, as regular exercise also boosts your mental and physical health. And if your schedule doesn't allow much time outdoors, take some time away from your latest Netflix binge this weekend and enjoy a picnic or hike with your loved ones!

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