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.