Take a Walk on the Wild Side: Two Hours Spent Weekly in Nature Improves Health

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

After deadlines and poor weather have kept me cooped up indoors for the last couple of days, I’m well aware of the irony of discussing the health benefits of spending time communing with nature.

Now, many cultures endorse the concept  – and not only for the health benefits that immersion in green places provides. Norwegians appreciate frilutsiv – a term coined in 1859, which loosely translates as “free air life”, while the Japanese embrace Shinrin-yoku –  “forest bathing”.

Last Thursday, a study reported in the journal Scientific Reports – Spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature is associated with good health and wellbeing – claims to be the first to determine the threshold at which these health benefits occur. Researchers at the University of Essex questioned 20,000 in England on the amount of time they spent weekly with nature, and their self-reported levels of good health and subjective well-being.

The Essex researchers found that 120 minutes – which need not be continuous –  is the threshold necessary for reporting higher levels of both health and well-being.  After that point, further exposure to nature yielded decreasing marginal returns, until plateauing at about 200 or 300 minutes. The benefits don’t require a foray into full-bore wilderness, nor did it matter how the 120 minute threshold was met – whether a long walk away from home on the weekend, or shorter regular visits to nearby parks.

As New Scientist notes:

“We have long known that nature is good for physical and mental health and putting numbers on the critical ‘dose of nature’ which gives us the best health is a really important step forward,” says Rachel Stancliffe of the Centre for Sustainable Healthcare in Oxford, UK.

Now, one thing that occurred to me in reading the study: perhaps those who spent more time with nature lead the sort of lives that leave them with time left over to spend? So that spending time with nature might instead be merely a proxy for those who lead a less time-stressed, more leisurely life.

As CNN reports:

“The thing that most surprised us was how consistent this was across nearly all the groups we looked at: young and old, male, female, urban and rural dwellers, those in deprived versus rich neighborhoods, but perhaps most importantly among those with long-standing illnesses or disabilities,” says Mathew White of the University of Exeter Medical School, who led the study.

“We were worried our effect was just that healthier people visited nature but this finding suggested even people with known illnesses who did manage to get two hours a week in nature fared better.”

White adds that further research would be needed to confirm these findings, with studies following participants over a longer time.

Although many people live far away from parks or green spaces, their lack of proximity did not prevent them from reporting benefits. The researchers found that those who lived in the least green areas were more likely to travel beyond their local neighbourhoods and meet the 120 minute threshold for spending time in nature. According to the study:

That the ≥120 mins “threshold” was present even for those who lived in low greenspace areas reflects the importance of measuring recreational nature contact directly when possible, rather than simply using residential proximity as a proxy for all types of nature exposure. People travel beyond their local neighbourhoods to access recreational nature experiences, and indeed in our own data those who lived in the least green areas had higher odds of spending ≥120 mins in nature than those living in greener neighbourhoods. Impoverished local opportunities need not be a barrier to nature exposure. [citations omitted]

The researches also considered whether  “time spent in nature” might be a proxy for physical activity – and tried to control for this possibility – with limited success:

One explanation for our findings might be that time spent in nature is a proxy for physical activity, and it is this which is driving the relationship, not nature contact per se. In England, for instance, over 3 million adults achieve recommended activity levels fully, or in part, in natural settings. Although: (a) we tried to control for this by including physical activity over the last 7 days in our models; and (b) the threshold applied to individuals who did not meet activity guidelines; we were unable to fully untangle these issues. Experimental research, however, indicates that some benefits cannot be due solely to physical activity. Research into shinrin-yoku (Japanese “forest bathing”), for instance, suggested that various psycho-physiological benefits can be gained from merely sitting passively in natural vs. urban settings. Moreover, physical activity conducted in nature may be more psychologically beneficial than in other locations, suggesting a complex interaction between the two which requires further research to fully understand. [citations omitted].

The researchers suggested that the relationship between exposure to nature and health is under-researched and that further study is necessary. But the New Scientist reports that a forthcoming study suggests the Essex findings aren’t unique and not just limited to the UK:

“Initial findings from an European Union project due to be published later this year suggests 2 hours is not just the magic number for the English, says White, but all Europeans.”

So, dear readers, I think I’m going to let the study’s findings guide my behavior for the rest of the day.  Just after I hit the button to publish this post, I’ll head out for a walk in the park: my commune with nature. I think it’ll be just the cure for a wee bit of cabin fever. And if done consistently, along with eating my daily fruit and veg and getting regular weekly exercise, may also be good for my health.

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26 comments

  1. berit

    Friluftsliv, fri-lufts-liv, translated, free(fresh)-air-life. Speaking a foreign language is easier than writing it, I think, constantly checking … Norwegians are few, our language closely related – though different – from svensk, dansk, tysk(German), nederlandsk, no wonder few foreigners learn it. Tank you for interesting, informative articles!

    Reply
    1. berit

      The article got it right. Old English have lots of Scandinavian words, old Norse – for things, activities – old English, old French, Latin, Greek … Idag, engelsk – lik latin for lenge siden (long ago) – snakkes (is spoken) i hele verden (the whole world)

      Reply
    2. Joe Well

      In this day and age, learning a foreign language means swimming upstream against all the people who’d rather speak English.

      How many Norwegians under a certain age don’t speak English?

      Reply
  2. Svante

    Poor weather? It’s been a pretty spectacular spring, up here… above Zabar’s? We’d gone up Riverside Park to meet the goats, while everybody was praying, the long stretch of actual spring-like weather would continue. My coworkers wailing & gnashing their teeth; only conga-lines of EF3s to punctuate god smiting ’em with floods, pestilence, CAFO poop, failing crops and jihadist congresswomen? Excuse all the typos, we’re texting amidst the oblivious hordes.

    Reply
    1. Svante

      O/T: speaking of Nature… and the Greening of NYC with fracked gas. There are guys stick-welding gas linepipe in the middle of West End Ave @ W78th, with 5/32″ rods and no UV shielding. He was striking an arc; motorists, kids, distracted gawkers looking up. 2-3 cop trucks but… PEH!

      Reply
  3. John Zelnicker

    My personal anecdote is completely consistent with this study. This summer I’ve been spending much more time in my yard with newly planted trees and bushes that need daily care. My health and equanimity have both improved over the past several weeks, and I’m feeling better than I have in a years.

    Reply
  4. skk

    I go to our local open space regularly. So I don’t mean to pooh-pooh this research, but I think its important to note: the odds ratio for subjective wellbeing when you take 120-179 mins of nature visits versus 0 minutes of nature visits in 1.23 – meaning 1.23 times more likely to report well-being. against those who do zero minutes.

    But also: Married/Cohabiting versus not has an odds ratio of 1.45 ! The least deprived area against the most deprived, all grouped in quintiles. has an odds ratio of 1.26. Pollution, most green as independent factor come in at 1.15, 1.07 respectively. Most surprising, older than 65 against under 65 has an odds ratio of 1.55 !

    So, my takeway is if there isjust one thing you can do if you are single is : get married/cohabit ! Visiting nature is somewhat less effective. yeah yeah OTOH, marriage/cohabit uses up quite some more time than 120 to 179 minutes per week.I exclude getting older since you can’t do much about it anyway.

    All this stuff comparing independent variables is of course ceteris paribus – “all other things being equal”. And always, YMMV.

    Variable interaction, meaning married/cohabiting AND take a nature visit for 120-179 minute duration would be an interesting exercise and quite easy to do, mechanically at least. Unfortunately, they have not published the code and data on github. But maybe I’ll email the author. But they did use odds-ratios rather than comparing coefficients which allows for linear comparisons between the numbers. Which is a good thing.

    All data I got is from the supplementary materials for the paper and is in : https://static-content.springer.com/esm/art%3A10.1038%2Fs41598-019-44097-3/MediaObjects/41598_2019_44097_MOESM1_ESM.pdf

    Reply
    1. freedomny

      “So, my takeway is if there isjust one thing you can do if you are single is : get married/cohabit ! ”

      Maybe for men….but not necessarily for women.

      https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/women-happy-children-spouse-partner-relationship-unmarried-a8931816.html,

      Re – being in nature and well being – our capitalistic, consumptive society encourages people to be separate from nature. We don’t even consider ourselves to be animals – but a species that is essentially superior to animals. I wholeheartedly believe that we will only be able to save the planet when people realize that we are all interconnected….

      Reply
      1. skk

        well, according to their results in their supplementary materials doc, women improve on men with a odds ratio of 1.16 ( where 1 is no effect ). As regards women who cohabit/married against the other 3 categories which are women and single, men and cohabit, men and single, if they gave me the data I could do that analysis on interacting variables.. Maybe I really will drop an email to the lead author.

        Separately, yes indeed we are all interconnected.

        Reply
    2. Anthony G Stegman

      There is little evidence to prove that being married and/or living together equates to a longer and happier life. This is the stuff mostly of legend.

      Reply
  5. PlutoniumKun

    I don’t think there can be much doubt that being in nature helps, even over and above the exercise benefits that usually goes with it. It seems a universal that people seek out greenery – I can’t think of any urban civilisation in history that didn’t see the value of parks, public squares with greenery, or private green spaces, so it really must be seen as a universal human value, not just a cultural one. There always seems to be a certain number of common features humans like – running water, moving foliage, flowers, shade.

    I’m very fortunate to live near a very large urban park, where I can go stroll among trees and long grass and see deer and other wildlife. There is something very calming about mature trees and water features, I’m sure it must be deeply ingrained in us, so I’ve no doubt there are therapeutic benefits. There is in fact a long tradition of horticultural therapy in treating people with physical and mental ailments.

    Reply
    1. Svante

      Unless you’re amidst the spectacular beauty, sitting atop the Marcellus and your betters need your “bridge fuel” so they can lower their building’s carbon footprint, continue to throw out mountains of plastic food delivery containers and drive Audi Q7s to the mall? This was near where George Washington had his hemp plantation and sent 13,000 militia during the Whisky Rebellion. He kinda started a war with France over it.

      https://www.commondreams.org/news/2019/06/17/because-public-health-crisis-pennsylvania-gov-urged-investigate-link-between?cd-origin=rss

      Reply
  6. JEHR

    I walk 5 km every morning except Monday (grocery day). I have been doing this for more than 23 years so I can attest to its ability to quiet the mood, titivate the brain, and soothe the emotions. I began walking as an antidote to argumentation via the marital state. I have seen deer, beaver, foxes, coyotes (dead), skunks, porcupines, moose, marmots, wild turkeys, mink, raccoons, a wild cat (lynx?), black bears, grasshoppers, geese, ducks, snakes, etc.

    Reply
  7. rjs

    re: Two Hours Spent Weekly in Nature Improves Health

    as someone who lives in an isolated rural farmhouse in an Ohio wetlands, i can attest to the fact that two hours in the city has quite the opposite effect…

    Reply
  8. Joe Well

    Here in Greater Boston there are many state forests, local conservation lands, wildlife preserves etc.

    They are mostly empty and I have them all to myself.

    Why?

    1. There is an unbelievable amount of ticks now, and a wave of Lyme Disease, which is a really horrible disease with potentially lifelong consequences. There is a beautiful bit of conservation land near my mother’s house that I won’t go in except well into winter, when it’s just not as nice.

    2. At least one person I know has said they won’t go in a state forest because they’re afraid of hunters. I think that fear is completely overblown, but the idea that you are in a place where bullets or arrows could legally be whizzing past, and if one hits you it’s just a matter of “oops!” and a small fine, is horrifying for most Bostonians.

    3. Many women, meanwhile, are afraid of being attacked in a lonely place in a horror movie scenario. I won’t go into it, but I was nearly arrested once in a local state forest on suspicion of something I didn’t do (not violent crime, something stupid, but I had taken a break to sit on a boulder in the state forest and meditate and that was seen as suspicious behavior).

    4. I have very rarely seen these places advertised. The people who have discovered them have no incentive to bring more people in and I doubt that an immediate rise in visitors would be met with an immediate rise in funding to mitigate their impact on the land.

    Anyway, nature is not a paradise, unfortunately.

    Maybe as the value of nature becomes economically quantifiable, we’ll get the budgets to overcome the challenges I mentioned.

    Reply
    1. Bruce F

      Funny you should mention ticks. As I sat down to read this, I felt one crawling on my forearm. I wanted to shout “What about ticks!”.

      I’m a farmer in WI, well aware of the downsides of Lyme, but I try to take as many precautions as I can.

      Reply
    2. lordkoos

      We have some ticks here in the Pacific NW, but none that carry Lyme, yet. The area I live in has a plenty of nearby forests and mountains but as the population has grown, the human pressure on the environment has increased greatly, removing a lot of the “wild” from the wilderness. Not only locals, but Seattle people view eastern WA as their outdoor playground. Last summer I was near Stampede Pass in the central Cascades looking for huckleberries to pick when someone in the woods nearby began shooting some kind of semi-automatic weapon. It was impossible to tell which direction they were firing the gun so we just got the hell out of there. I’ve crossed that spot off of my foraging list, at least on weekends. Otherwise, being out in nature is great…

      Reply
  9. Wukchumni

    We walked for almost 2 hours off-trail yesterday to a gushing waterfall (the spray went almost 50 feet in the air) and didn’t see any other humans in the midst of our traipse, rendering it wilder by omission.

    Reply
  10. gonzomarx

    I can vouch for this too, we bought our house because it’s next to the park and river. Most evenings are spent moseying around feeding the waterfowl.
    Such a great way to unwind after the day.

    Reply
  11. Henry Moon Pie

    So a thought occurred to me the other evening while enjoying some herb-enhanced contemplation accompanied by appropriate tunes. What if all living things share a sort of “wisdom network?” Now “wisdom” has to be interpreted quite broadly for my purposes. “Good vibrations” are an aspect. “Shalom” works nicely too. In the physical presence of this network, if we allow ourselves to “connect,” we partake of that wisdom, those good vibes, beautiful shalom. So who can be surprised that failing to be in the midst of that wisdom network for even two hours a week can lead to all sorts of nasty side effects to one’s mental, emotional and physical well-being?

    Does that qualify as a bit of animism, Lambert?

    Reply
    1. freedomny

      I don’t really understand “animism”.

      But I do really know that as humans, we are inextricably connected with every living “being” on this world,

      Reply
  12. cripes

    Maybe getting out of urban congestion, traffic, smog, people and cell phones for 2 hours weekly increases life span.

    On trips to the west coast, Caribbean, New England, etc., partner stayed on her cellphone all the time; I think my life span declined and blood pressure went up.

    Reply
  13. chuck roast

    Over the last 10 summers I have been getting out on the water for long periods. I can tell you with absolute certainty that it has maintained my good health. But don’t try this at home because the betterment of your personal physical and mental health may lead to extreme social alienation. Meaning you will want to get away from any number of nonsense individuals and back on the water as soon as possible because you become an actual alien in the nation.

    Reply
  14. Math is Your Friend

    “Now, one thing that occurred to me in reading the study: perhaps those who spent more time with nature lead the sort of lives that leave them with time left over to spend? So that spending time with nature might instead be merely a proxy for those who lead a less time-stressed, more leisurely life.”

    An excellent, excellent point!

    A lot of these kinds of ‘studies’ completely ignore potential confounding effects.

    I find them quite annoying.

    Generally, at least as described in media reports, the majority of health/sociological/psychological results seem to leave obvious alternative explanations untested and avoid any questions about the conclusions reached.

    Your recognition of possible uncertainties brightened my day.

    Thank you.

    Reply

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