We have long known that being in the great outdoors is good for us. But the authors of the new study, published in Scientific Reports, said theirs is the first large-scale research to quantify how much time is needed to feel the effects.
“This applies to old and young, males and females and the rich and the poor,” said lead researcher Dr White from the University of Exeter.
Effects were the same whether participants caught their nature time in small chunks or saved up their time outdoors for a weekend megadose.
Nature, as defined by the study, did not have to be pristine wilderness or spectacular national parks. Beaches, city parks or farmland were all included as natural environments.
Going for a surf or cycle might be a great way to pair outdoor time with getting active, but physical activity wasn’t necessary to feel the benefits of being in nature, Dr White said.
The study used survey data from more than 19,000 participants in the United Kingdom, who were quizzed about their contact with nature.
Participants also described their health in categories ranging from “very bad” to “very good”. And to assess wellbeing, they were asked to rank how satisfied they were with their life on a ten-point scale.
How to measure nature’s effect on wellbeing
Two kids play in park
It doesn’t have to be pristine wilderness: visiting your local park can yield the same benefits.
Unpicking how factors in people’s lives affect their health and happiness is a notoriously difficult scientific undertaking.
This is because quantifying the impact of something like “time spent in nature” involves so many variables, said Pauline Marsh, a lecturer in rural health of the University of Tasmania, who was not involved with the study.
“Many factors impact our relationship with a place, including political, social, economic, cultural, historical factors. These all come to bear on our subjective experience, which is hard to quantify,” Dr Marsh said.
“Any research that adds to adds to the body of knowledge around the positive impacts of nature on health and well-being is always very welcome.”
Hiker with pack walks on duckboard track, blue sky, mountains on either side.
Two hours in nature a week was beneficial, whether that time was divided up over the week or condensed into one day.
One challenge for the study was that healthy people are more likely to spend time in nature, making it difficult to show cause and effect, Dr White said.
But even among “unhealthy” people, such as those with long-term illness, meeting the threshold of two hours in nature per week provided a lift to their health and wellbeing scores — raising their results compared to similarly unwell people who didn’t get that exposure.
Getting back to nature not easy for everyone
While time in nature had positive effects on people regardless on wealth, age, sex or ability, many people face significant barriers in accessing natural spaces, Dr White said.
Older heterosexual couple in nature, the man has his arms over the woman’s shoulder, they are smiling
Communities can help people access nature by making public parks and beaches more accessible.
“Richer people tend to live in nicer more natural areas … we therefore strongly support improved access to natural spaces for poorer communities.”
People in residential aged care and with mobility issues were likely to live “interior lives”, according to Dr Marsh.
“Communities can be looking at their green spaces and thinking about ways to make those green spaces really inclusive,” she said.
“That might be providing a bit of seating or making places open access.
“Community gardens are a great model for how we can make green spaces inclusive.”