A recent study in England found that spending two or more hours outside each week correlates with improved health and well-being.
University of Exeter researchers analyzed data from 20,000 people in England to understand the relationship between natural environments and well-being. The study, published Thursday in Scientific Reports adds to an under-researched area of psychology, and further studies on the connection could lead to weekly nature exposure guidelines that are similar to current physical activity recommendations.
“It’s well known that getting outdoors in nature can be good for people’s health and well-being, but until now, we’ve not been able to say how much is enough,” Mat White, lead researcher and an environmental psychologist at the University of Exeter, said in a news release.
The researchers drew data from the Monitor of Engagement with the Natural Environment Survey by Natural England, an advisory body for the United Kingdom government. Participants looked back at their recreation in nature in the previous seven days, then self-reported their health and well-being.
Overall, people were significantly more likely to report good health and high well-being once they spent two hours or more in nature, compared to no nature contact at all. The positive connection between nature and well-being peaked and leveled out at 200 to 300 minutes of outside time.
From their findings, it doesn’t seem to matter if the two hours occurred in a single visit or over several shorter visits. It also applied to just about everyone, regardless of gender, age, occupation, ethnic group, economic status, disability or health status.
“The majority of nature visits in this research took place within just two miles of home, so even visiting local urban green spaces seems to be a good thing,” White said.
In the mental health field, an office space can actually be a hindrance to people opening up. Ryan Sullivan, a Bayfield counselor who specializes in nature-based therapy, finds that when people are outside in the sun and moving around, there’s a sense of connection that doesn’t happen indoors.
“I think people are starting to recognize that it can be a tool in the therapeutic relationship,” Sullivan said, referring to the mental health community. Even just having an office with a window, a plant or some other natural object can be beneficial for any provider, regardless of their field. “Anybody can do this. You don’t have to be a wilderness therapist to spend time with your clients or patients outside.”
Most of the time, his clients prefer to be moving around, Sullivan said. That outside time leads to improved mood and a sense of calmness for his clients.
“I can speak from my own experience. ... Any time I was feeling stressed, overwhelmed, any difficult emotion, I would spend as much time as possible outside,” he said. “That has always been extremely healing for me.”
Getting perspective on life circumstances, reducing stress and enjoying quality time with friends and family are some of the many reasons why time in nature may be good for health and well-being, according to Terry Hartig, co-author of the study and a psychology professor at Uppsala University in Sweden.
Mike Wilk and his partner, Natalie Mik, seek every opportunity they can to be outside, from family dinners to Durango summer concerts and daily mountain bike rides.
Wilk and Mik said that having safe, stimulating outdoor urban spaces is an important part of getting more people outside. In fact, research associates living in greener open areas with lower probabilities of cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, asthma hospitalization, mental distress and other health issues, according to the Exeter study.
“Outside means freedom,” Wilk said as his daughter jumped from rock to rock in Buckley Park during a family picnic. To him, part of that freedom is relief from daily stressors. “When you’re inside, it’s confining. When you’re outside, you’re a lot more free. You can stretch out a lot more.”