Nature is not a place to visit. It is home.
— Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild
We are bombarded online with advice on how to be healthier and happier. I just read recently that coffee is not bad for me. In fact, it can reduce my risk of cancer, Type 2 diabetes, Parkinson’s, heart disease, increase my short-term focus and endurance and increase your life span. Talk about a wonder drug.
Of course, research next year may say the opposite about coffee.
But a new research study about spending time in nature is one that I will accept no matter what the next study finds.
It comes from the University of Exeter and was published in the journal Scientific Reports. It uses data from 20,000 people, so this is no little study in a lab with 20 people.
This survey asked participants how much time they spent in “open spaces in and around towns and cities, including parks, canals and nature areas; the coast and beaches; and the countryside including farmland, woodland, hills, and rivers” in the past week. They also asked about their health and wellbeing.
This study found that people who had spent two hours or more in nature the previous week displayed “consistently higher levels of both health and well-being than those who reported no exposure.”
The participants who had spent little or no time in parks, beaches or woods in the past seven days, close to half reported low levels of life satisfaction and one in four said they were in poor health.
What about spending more than two hours out in nature? Oddly, there were diminishing returns.
Some interpretations have considered that the health benefits might be a byproduct of physical activity, exposure to sunlight and not contact with nature.
I was surprised, as were the researchers, that it did not matter whether the two hours in nature were taken in one session or in a series of shorter visits. It also didn’t seem to matter whether people went to an urban park, woodlands or the beach.
Two hours a week in nature doesn’t sound like a difficult thing to achieve in order to be healthier in mind and body. But isn’t an attainable target for everyone.
Articles online point out that it would be difficult for people with disabilities. In the most urban of areas, there may not even be a nearby woods, a patch of green space or park. And even if some nature is available, some people don’t seem to be able to find the time – though I find that a flimsy excuse if you only need to accomplish a total of two hours per week. That’s only a bit more than 15 minutes a day. Coffee or lunch break?
The idea of spending time in nature for your health is not at all new, and I find examples of some interesting nature prescriptions regularly. In the Shetland Islands (UK), they are prescribed to visit seabird colonies, build woodland dens or simply appreciate the shapes of clouds.
Eco-therapy in New Zealand produced improvements after six months in two-thirds of patients given green prescriptions. By gardening or working on conservation projects they were happier, lost weight and even seemed to be helped with mild to moderate depression.
Still, the takeaway from that new study is that if you can just get two hours in some kind of natural place per week, you’re going to benefit.