During stressful times there’s a simple thing you can do to boost your feelings of health and well-being: Spend some time outside in nature.
A recent study of nearly 20,000 people in England found that those who spent at least two hours (120 minutes) a week in nature — meaning green spaces like parks and wooded areas — were significantly more likely to report better health and mental well-being than those who didn’t visit a nature setting at all during an average week.
Even better, it didn’t matter whether those 120 minutes were achieved in one long visit or broken up into several spurts during the week. That means you could potentially benefit just as much from a 17-minute daily walk.
Researchers also found that the advantages of doing at least 120 minutes a week applied to nearly everyone — men and women, older and younger, across occupational and ethnic groups and all income levels, as well as among people with long-term illnesses or disabilities.
And visiting a nearby park can be just as beneficial as trekking to larger, farther-away places. The majority of nature visits study participants took occurred within just two miles of their homes, researchers reported.
But two hours weekly is key, the findings indicate. Subjects who spent less than 120 minutes during the week got no benefits.
The research adds to a number of studies suggesting that people who spend more time outside in natural settings report better mental and physical health. The British researchers were interested in finding out just how much time is needed to reap those rewards, said lead researcher Mathew White, an environmental psychologist at the University of Exeter Medical School.
“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,” White said in a prepared statement.
Although the study didn’t specifically ask if people were spending time in nature alone or with someone else, White said in an email that “earlier work suggests benefits are largely similar whether alone or with a partner.” If you’re a parent or grandparent taking multiple kids to the park, though, that’s “not surprisingly, more challenging regarding mental health benefits.”
Other studies have also shown how the brain’s gray matter benefits from green space. A Stanford study found that a stroll in nature reduced anxiety and quieted negative thoughts. A recent Scottish and British study used special headsets to track the brain activity of 95 older adults (age 65-plus) as they walked between busy urban environments and quiet green areas. The researchers found that the time spent in green spaces increased changes in the brain associated with relaxation and calm, but time in urban zones increased brain activity indicative of higher stress and vigilance.
The takeaway here is that whether you’re working from home and need a break or are anxious and in need of a change of scenery, going somewhere quiet filled with foliage to walk may be just the balm your brain needs.
Break it up. Two hours a week, as this study out of Exeter suggests, may sound like a lot, but taking a 17-minute walk each day will work just as well. Or take two 30-minute walks nearby during the week, saving a leisurely hour-long walk someplace farther away for the weekend.
Change the scenery. If you always walk the same route, explore nearby local parks. Or change the time you stroll by, say, going in the soft light of early morning as the birds are waking or during the full sun of mid-afternoon when all the flowers are open. Familiar green vistas can look different at different times of the day.
Think of it as medicine. Stress can affect our sleep, mood, eating habits and more. But a walk somewhere green and pretty is like medicine for your brain, calming you and stopping the mental hamster wheel of all those worries. So take your medicine by getting out for a relaxing stroll. —Candy Sagon
Editor’s note: Check with your local jurisdiction about whether trails and parks are open and follow health guidelines for social distancing in your area.