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April 20, 2021

Spending Time in Nature Can Be Good for Your Mental Health

Written by Dr. Gia Marson

These days, getting some fresh air isn’t just friendly advice. With nearly half of all Americans suffering from at least two chronic health conditions, going outside is a nonnegotiable prescription for our well-being. Learn five tips for making nature a daily priority.

This grand show is eternal. It is always sunrise somewhere; the dew is never all dried at once; a shower is forever falling; vapor ever rising. Eternal sunrise, eternal sunset, eternal dawn and gloaming, on seas and continents and islands, each in its turn, as the round earth rolls.”  —John Muir

In a complicated world, it’s easy to believe that solutions need to be complicated too. When it comes to mental health issues, though, the solution couldn’t be simpler: nature. 

Has anyone ever suggested that you “take a walk” to calm down when angry or to lift your spirits when feeling blue? I can’t count the number of times I’ve recommended that someone “get some fresh air” as an accessible solution for how to deal with anxiety, depression, stress or frustration. 

We advise time outdoors because it’s an effective solution that most of us already know deep within ourselves, yet we might’ve discounted as being too simple. 

What the Research Shows about Nature and Mental Health

There’s been a slew of research in recent years into the mental health benefits of spending time in nature. One 2019 study revealed that just two hours a week in nature (i.e., green spaces like parks and woodlands) can have a positive effect on mental health and well-being. That same year, a fascinating meta-analysis showed that just ten minutes of natural environment exposure a day can have the same beneficial effects. 

The studies looked specifically at college-age students, a cohort that, in the United States, experiences significant stress, depression, and anxiety. In other countries, nature prescriptions are being trialed as a way of managing and treating a range of health problems, including mental health disorders. 

Even more interesting is that the studies aren’t suggesting that you need to go on wilderness retreats or travel great distances. Instead, benefits can be gained from going to your local park.

The Benefits of Being in Nature

At some point in life the world’s beauty becomes enough. You don’t need to photograph, paint, or even remember it. It is enough.” —Toni Morrison

The burden of chronic disease in the U.S. and other Western societies is of significant concern. In the U.S. alone, 40 percent of the population has at least two chronic conditions. In our urbanized society, we spend more time indoors and in locations that lack green space. We stare at screens and surround ourselves with man-made objects. 

Only a few of us count “being in nature” as one of our top daily priorities. This inclination has become so widespread that there’s even a term for it: nature deficit disorder.

The research shows, time and time again, that spending time in nature is actually nonnegotiable if we want to have good mental health and anxiety relief. In fact, hanging out with trees can: 

  • Lower your blood pressure
  • Reduce your anxiety and stress
  • Boost your mood
  • Improve your physical health and fitness
  • Increase your pain tolerance 
  • Improve mindful awareness
  • Reduce symptoms of depression

That’s not a bad list, is it?

5 Tips to Spending More Time in Nature

Here are some easy, actionable ways to get more face time with the natural world: 

#1 Explore local parks

Parks are perfect for a stroll at lunchtime or after work if the sun is still shining. Make an effort to look up at tree branches, notice the flowerbeds, or walk barefoot on grass. Perhaps even learn the names of the plants you come across. See if you can spot birds or other wildlife. 

#2 Go forest bathing

The Japanese concept of shinrin yoku is simple: spend time in forests. Try to find a forest near to your home where you can walk or sit in peace, contemplating the trees you see and the sounds you hear. 

#3 Join an outdoor exercise group

Running, hiking, biking, paddleboarding, playing frisbee golf, or practicing tai chi—if you live in a reasonably sized town or city, there are likely lots of outdoor exercise groups you can join. Many clubs are even subdivided by experience or comfort level, making it super easy to get involved without having to be a professional athlete. Some offer membership via a small annual fee, while others are free and you just show up. A bonus to getting outdoors regularly is that you’ll gain a supportive and like-minded community in the process. 

#4 Spend time by the water 

Blue space, a.k.a. natural environments that are water-based, can be calming and have sweeping benefits for your mental health. If you live on the coast, why not head down to the beach for a walk or a picnic? If you’re inland, seek out lakes and rivers with public access. 

# 5 Fill your home with houseplants 

Sales of indoor plants have soared in the past five years, likely because the secret is out about their myriad benefits. They can improve your sense of well-being and give you an extra sense of purpose. Don’t have a home flooded with sunlight? There are houseplants that will thrive in all environments. 

Nature Is Waiting for You

If you are living in a heavily urbanized space, there is still much you can do to immerse yourself in nature as often as possible.

Challenge yourself to find ten minutes a day to be outdoors. You might be surprised at the fun you have exploring your local green spaces and finding paths you never knew existed. Grab a dog, call a friend, set a walking meeting, or simply explore in blissful silence. Whether you visit a community garden, meadow, wildlife park, or pond, nature is out there waiting for you. 


Citations

Kondo, M. C., Oyekanmi, K. O., Gibson, A., South, E. C., Bocarro, J., & Hipp, J. A. (2020). Nature prescriptions for health: A review of evidence and research opportunities. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17(12), 4213. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph17124213.

Meredith, G. R., Rakow, D. A., Eldermire, E. R. B., Madsen, C. G., Shelley, S. P., & Sachs, N. A. (2020). Minimum time dose in nature to positively impact the mental health of college-aged students, and how to measure it: A scoping review. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 2942. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02942. 

Ulrich, R. S. (1984). View through a window may influence recovery from surgery. Science (New York, N.Y.), 224(4647), 420–421. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.6143402.

Warber, S. L., DeHudy, A. A., Bialko, M. F., Marselle, M. R., & Irvine, K. N. (2015). Addressing “nature-deficit disorder”: A mixed methods pilot study of young adults attending a wilderness camp. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 651827. https://doi.org/10.1155/2015/651827.
White, M. P., Alcock, I., Grellier, J., et al. (2019). Spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature is associated with good health and wellbeing. Science Report 9, 7730. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-44097-3.

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