A mountain of research is giving near-conclusive evidence to the idea that exposing yourself to nature improves your physical and mental health, and the effects go beyond just giving your mood a temporary boost.
A study published in the journal Scientific Reports suggests that spending at least two hours a week immersing yourself in nature is enough to positively affect you. The study reports that both men and women are more likely to feel that their physical health and psychological well-being are in a good state if they spend at least 120 minutes in nature per week.
The study used survey data from nearly 20,000 people in England. These surveys asked people about their weekly contact with nature. Their findings showed that it didn’t matter if the participants spent two hours in nature in a single day or spread it out over a week over several visits. Reports state that spending as little as 17 minutes a day in nature may have a noticeable positive effect on a person’s overall health.
In a press release, Dr. Mathew P. White, lead author and environmental psychologist, notes that anything from a small wooded area to a beach can count as nature. However, he also said that the type of natural setting does matter, stating that “there’s really good evidence to suggest that the marine environment and mountains are the top hitters.”
But you shouldn’t feel downcast if you live far from a hiking trail or a beach. White stated that the majority of “nature visits” recorded by the survey data took place within two miles of a person’s home. Visiting a local urban green space, according to White, can still be a good thing. “The park is better than walking down a busy street.”
Nature positively affects health
In an interview, White detailed how he and the other researchers believe nature has a positive effect on mental and physical health. Firstly, he mentions that being in nature encourages more exercise. More importantly, White believes that for people living in cities, these urban environments are “placing so many cognitive demands.” He believes that spending time in a natural environment is downtime for the brain, giving it a chance to relax.
To support his claims, White mentions a study done by Greg Bratman of the University of Washington on rumination. In Bratman’s study, which was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, he suggested that people with mild depression who spend time in nature are less likely to spend time nurturing negative thoughts. “The more tranquil the setting the better,” said White.
Other studies also support White’s claims regarding nature’s positive effect on health. A Japanese study done by researchers from the Nippon Medical School suggested that “forest bathing,” or taking long walks in the woods, can lower your blood pressure and enhance the abilities of your body’s “natural killer cells,” or cells that may have anti-cancer properties.
There’s even evidence suggesting that merely living in greener neighborhoods can have positive effects on your health, for instance by reducing your exposure to air pollution. (Related: Children raised in rural environments and surrounded by animals develop stronger immune systems.)
Terry Hartig, co-author of the study, stated that their findings “offer valuable support to health practitioners in making recommendations about spending time in nature to promote basic health and well-being, similar to guidelines for weekly physical.”