Spending at least two hours a week in nature may be a crucial threshold for promoting health and wellbeing, according to a new large-scale study.
Research led by the University of Exeter, published in Scientific Reports and funded by NIHR, found that people who spend at least 120 minutes in nature a week are significantly more likely to report good health and higher psychological wellbeing than those who don’t visit nature at all during an average week. However, no such benefits were found for people who visited natural settings such as town parks, woodlands, country parks and beaches for less than 120 minutes a week.
The study used data from nearly 20,000 people in England and found that it didn’t matter whether the 120 minutes was achieved in a single visit or over several shorter visits.
It also found the 120 minute threshold applied to both men and women, to older and younger adults, across different occupational and ethnic groups, among those living in both rich and poor areas, and even among people with long term illnesses or disabilities.
Dr. Mat White, of the University of Exeter Medical School, who led the study, said:
“It’s well known that getting outdoors in nature can be good for people’s health and wellbeing but until now we’ve not been able to say how much is enough.
The majority of nature visits in this research took place within just two miles of home so even visiting local urban greenspaces seems to be a good thing.
Two hours a week is hopefully a realistic target for many people, especially given that it can be spread over an entire week to get the benefit.”
There is growing evidence that merely living in a greener neighbourhood can be good for health, for instance by reducing air pollution.
The data for the current research came from Natural England’s Monitor of Engagement with the Natural Environment Survey, the world’s largest study collecting data on people’s weekly contact with the natural world.
Co-author of the research, Professor Terry Hartig of Uppsala University in Sweden said: “There are many reasons why spending time in nature may be good for health and wellbeing, including getting perspective on life circumstances, reducing stress, and enjoying quality time with friends and family. T
he current findings offer valuable support to health practitioners in making recommendations about spending time in nature to promote basic health and wellbeing, similar to guidelines for weekly physical”.
The full paper is entitled “Spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature is associated with good health and wellbeing”, published in Scientific Reports.
Health and well-being benefits of passive contact with nature
The belief that contact with nature fosters well-being may be as old as urbanisation itself.
For many urban-dwelling individuals, contact with nature is achieved through visits to local publicly owned natural spaces (e.g. parks), or via visits to relatively remote publicly owned natural areas set aside for conservation (e.g. national parks).
When parks were first designed in the 19th century, it was believed that exposure to nature fostered psychological well-being, reduced the stresses associated with urban living and promoted physical health.
In a collaborative study, Maller et al. presented a review of human health and well-being benefits arising from passive contact with nature, including ‘viewing’ and ‘being in’ nature within a local park context.
Findings included anecdotal, theoretical and empirical evidence demonstrating physical, mental, social, and subsequent economic benefits for humans arising from contact with nature.
A sample of this evidence is presented below.
Physical health benefits
Viewing and being in nature has been found to positively influence cardiovascular functioning; reduce the magnitude of physiological responses to stress; and enhance the ability to cope with, and recover from, stressful episodes. Viewing nature has also been found to reduce heart rate, release muscle tension, lower blood pressure, and improve skin conductance.
Parsons et al. found that when exposed to scenes of natural environments, subjects recovered from illness faster and were more resistant to subsequent stress.
Maller et al. listed improvements in self-awareness, self-esteem, and self-concept as arising from passive contact with nature, with positive flow- on effects for physiological health (such as boosting immunity).
Mental health benefits
The experience of nature in a neurological sense can help strengthen the activities of the brain’s right hemisphere and restore harmony to its functions as a whole.
This is perhaps a technical explanation of the process that occurs when people ‘clear their head’ by going for a walk in a park.
Contact with nature has been found to improve concentration, remedy mental fatigue, and positively affect mood state.
Wilderness areas have been cited to provide spiritual inspiration and/or to enable people to gain a fresh perspective on life.
Wells found natural surroundings assisted cognitive functioning in children.
Social health benefits
Interacting with nature in one’s local neighbourhood has been found to promote a sense of community, foster a sense of belonging or sense of place, and enhance social ties/ relationships.
Knowing that nature was nearby was found to improve the quality of life and neighbourhood satisfaction of residents.
For example, Kuo and Kuo and Sullivan found that trees nearby decreased levels of fear, incivilities, and violence among residents; decreased crime rates in public housing; and improved life satisfaction of residents.
Natural environments have been found to foster social connection within neighbourhoods by providing settings for groups to meet formally and informally for recreational or leisure pursuits, or for community gardening and conservation work.
Wong found that for newly arrived migrants, contact with nature fostered a sense of identity and ownership and provided a sense of integration rather than isolation.
Economic health benefits
Spin-offs for economic health arising from nature contact include the capacity for parks and natural features to improve the productivity of workers; to improve recovery rates of patients in hospital; and to decrease the incidence of illness reported by individuals incarcerated in detention centres. Larson et al. found contact with nature to improve overall health, as well as reduce the number of sick days and employee absences.
Maller et al. stated views of nature from hospitals and other care facilities (such as nursing homes) had the potential to reduce recovery time (number of days spent in hospital), reduce the quantities of medication required to treat patients, and reduce incidences of post-operative surgery in patients.
Views of nature from detention centres and prisons have been found to reduce the incidence of illness (particularly stress-related illness) in inmates, reducing health care costs in prisons.
Further, trees in urban streets have been found to attract consumers and tourists to business districts and are seen to increase appeal.
Contact with nature not only enhances the physical, mental and social health and well-being of individuals, but may also enhance the economic health and well-being of individuals and communities.
Although evidence supporting the benefits of passive contact with nature is strong, it is clear more research is required to understand relationships between nature contact and the various dimensions of health, including mental health outcomes for humans. An apparent gap in research is an examination of health and well-being benefits arising from active or social contact with nature, and the potential for these elements to enhance nature contact encounters. The following section outlines the benefits of both physical activity and social connection in order to demonstrate the potential additional benefits for humans when nature is experienced actively or socially.
Potential health and well-being benefits of active and social contact with nature
Health benefits of physical activity
The Victorian Health Promotion Foundation states that physical activity lowers blood pressure and decreases an individual’s chance of developing type 2 diabetes. Physical activity raises the levels of good cholesterol (HDL) and may be protective against some forms of cancer. Physical activity has also been found to decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease, particularly coronary heart disease. The foundation also states that individuals are twice as likely to have a heart attack if they do not take part in moderate to intense physical activity.30 Weight-bearing exercises such as walking, running and weight training strengthen the musculoskeletal system, which can decrease the likelihood of developing osteoporosis and, in the elderly especially, lessen the risk of having a fall. Further, being physically active can improve mental well-being by reducing feelings of stress, anxiety and depression.31 Studies have shown that physical activity can reduce the duration and intensity of clinical depression.32
Health benefits of social connection
Studies have consistently
demonstrated that people who are socially isolated or disconnected from others have between
two and five times the risk of dying
from all causes compared with those who
maintain strong ties with family,
friends and community.33 The Victorian
Health Promotion Foundation states that
social interactions among older adults is associated with positive mental and physical health, including better recovery after the onset of disease.
Socially isolated elderly people have been found to have a relatively
greater risk of developing Alzheimer’s
disease.30 Wilkinson and Marmot
found that people who get less social and emotional
support are more likely to
experience depression.34 According to
evidence cited by the Victorian
Health Promotion Foundation, social supports
strengthen mental health; confiding
relationships protect against depression; social connection reduces
anxiety; connected people live longer; and
belonging to a social network, with mutual obligations,
helps people feel cared for, loved, and valued.
In addition, supportive
relationships may encourage
healthier behaviour patterns and have been found to relieve individuals from stresses.35 A study of 2,000 people in Finland found that social support strengthened mental health in all respondents.36
Nature-based treatment interventions
While the previous section explored health promotion benefits of nature contact for general populations, this section explores nature contact in treatment for individuals experiencing ill- health. Wilderness therapy, adventure therapy, nature-guided therapy, eco-psychology, horticultural-therapy and animal- assisted therapy are among the treatment interventions that use contact with nature for individuals experiencing ill-health.
A growing body of evidence supports these approaches for enhancing health and well-being, including their capacity to reduce known risks and to augment the skills and behaviours that protect individuals from falling into greater ill-health.
Clinical eco-psychology, for example, operates on the premise that many psychological and physical afflictions may be caused by the withdrawal of modern humans from the healing forces of the natural world.
Burns successfully treated patients suffering from a variety of negative psychological states associated with severe trauma, cancer, depression and anxiety, using simple assignments in nature as the basis for treatment.
A rationale for using adventure and wilderness programs to assist personal growth for young people is widely documented.
For example, Outward Bound programs use wilderness experiences to boost self-confidence and self-esteem for participants.
In the case of wilderness therapy, specific philosophies, methodologies, target groups and interventions have evolved, and a worldwide network of practitioners has been established under the auspices of adventure therapy.
Wilderness areas in Australia and New Zealand are more often called ‘bush’ or national parks; subsequently, this field of endeavour within Australasia has come to be called bush adventure therapy, highlighting the importance of the natural environment and the role of adventure (including physical activity) within the intervention for participants.
Bush adventure therapy from this perspective constitutes an intentional, active and social experience with nature, usually incorporating adventure pursuits or a journey, which may or may not include intentional psychological intervention but in all cases is facilitated by a trained staff team.
While the majority of these programs target participants exhibiting health-risk behaviours (including substance misuse or offending, for example) programs may or may not highlight the pathology or illness as a central focus within the intervention.
Some treatment programs, for example, emphasise the use of safe physical, emotional and social environments, and the development of skills, confidence and behaviours to build participants’ personal resilience, leading to a reduction in risk-taking behaviours and greater protection from ill-health.
The following case study examines the health and well-being benefits of one active and social encounter with nature for a small group of young people who undertook a bush adventure therapy program in Victoria, Australia.
Journal information: Scientific Reports
Provided by University of Exeter