In 2018, more than 318.2 million people visited U.S. national parks, logging more than 1.4 billion recreation visitor hours.1 Their popularity hints at humans’ inherent desire to spend time in natural spaces, and research backs up the benefits, showing that greater exposure to parks and other “green” spaces is associated with better health and well-being.2
Taking time to explore national parks is a worthy endeavor to get in your nature fix, but even better may be taking time to explore the natural world on a daily or weekly basis. Is there a magic number when it comes to the ideal amount of time to spend in nature to maximize its benefits to your health?
120 minutes a week in nature is ideal for health and well-being
A study published in Scientific Reports explored the associations between contact with nature in the last seven days and self-reported health and well-being.3 Data from 19,806 participants were included, revealing that, compared to no nature contact, spending 120 minutes or more in nature during the previous week was associated with a greater likelihood of good health or high well-being.
There were decreasing returns with nature exposure beyond 120 minutes, and the association flattened out and even dropped between 200 and 300 minutes per week.
“We tentatively suggest, therefore, that 120 minutes contact with nature per week may reflect a kind of ‘threshold,’ below which there is insufficient contact to produce significant benefits to health and well-being, but above which such benefits become manifest,” the researchers said.4
It didn’t matter how the 120 minutes was achieved; multiple shorter visits had the same effect as fewer, longer visits, as long as they added up to 120 minutes, and the benefits held true across different populations, including older adults and people with long-term health issues. Lead study author Matthew White, of the University of Exeter Medical School, said in a news release:5
“It’s well known that getting outdoors in nature can be good for people’s health and wellbeing but until now we’ve not been able to say how much is enough.
The majority of nature visits in this research took place within just two miles of home so even visiting local urban greenspaces seems to be a good thing. 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.”
Health benefits of nature depend on the dose
The researchers of the featured study even suggested that, with further research, weekly nature guidelines could be developed similar to those given for physical activity. In fact, the study found that getting recommended levels of nature exposure weekly could result in a similar magnitude of health gains as achieving recommended levels of physical activity.6
Indeed, past research also shows that the health benefits of nature experiences depend on the dose. Among people in an urban environment, long visits to green spaces were associated with lower rates of depression and high blood pressure, while more frequent visits were linked to greater social cohesion, which is associated with physical and mental well-being. The study further revealed:7
“The results here suggest that nature experiences in urban green spaces may be having a considerable impact on population health, and that these benefits could be higher if more people were engaged in nature experiences.
Specifically, our results suggest that up to a further 7% of depression cases and 9% of high blood pressure cases could be prevented if all city residents were to visit green spaces at least once a week for an average duration of 30 minutes or more.”
More frequent and longer visits to green spaces were also associated with physical activity, which can further boost health. Visiting natural settings may help to facilitate exercise, as you can easily spend time walking, hiking or cycling trails.
How nature can improve your health
Spending time in nature carries an impressive potential to boost your health. One meta-analysis of 103 observational and 40 interventional studies investigating about 100 health outcomes revealed that spending more time in green spaces is associated with decreased:8
Salivary cortisol (a marker of stress)
Diastolic blood pressure
According to the study, “For several nonpooled health outcomes, between 66.7% and 100% of studies showed health-denoting associations with increased greenspace exposure including neurological and cancer-related outcomes, and respiratory mortality.”9
Delving even deeper into nature’s connection to health, some research suggests that green spaces with the highest levels of plants, butterflies and birds, otherwise known as species richness or biodiversity, may further enhance psychological health.10 On the other hand, the opposite also holds true in that living in an urban environment might negatively affect mental health.
Doctors handing out ‘green prescriptions’
One of the goals of quantifying the optimal “dose” of nature is so doctors can advise their patients on how to get the most benefits of outdoor time. They could even hand out “green prescriptions.” The authors of the meta-analysis noted:12
“Green prescriptions involving greenspace use may have substantial benefits. Our findings should encourage practitioners and policymakers to give due regard to how they can create, maintain, and improve existing accessible greenspaces in deprived areas.
Furthermore the development of strategies and interventions for the utilisation of such greenspaces by those who stand to benefit the most.”
It’s an idea that’s catching on. One partnership project between NHS Shetland and the U.K.’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds allows general practitioners to prescribe nature as part of their patients’ treatment.
The Nature Prescriptions program “recognizes the benefits of nature on reducing blood pressure, reducing anxiety and increasing happiness as well as the growing disconnection with nature throughout society.”13 The program includes a schedule of seasonal activities designed to encourage more time in nature, which include such activities as:14
Counting the birds in your garden
Stepping outside and being still for three minutes, just listening
Getting out “whatever the weather” and feeling the exhilaration of wind and rain on your face
Making a birdbath
Looking for tracks and signs of animals
Planting some bulbs
Are you getting enough nature time?
As scientists continue to reaffirm the benefits of spending time in nature, many Americans struggle with getting enough outdoor time. In a report commissioned by Velux, a window manufacturing company, it’s revealed that 25 percent of Americans hardly ever go outside.15,16
“We are increasingly turning into a generation of indoor people where the only time we get daylight and fresh air midweek is on the commute to work or school,” Peter Foldbjerg, the head of daylight energy and indoor climate at Velux, a window manufacturing company, said in a statement.17
In another survey of 11,817 U.S. adults and children, 25% of adults reported spending less than two hours in nature each week.18 “The relationship of Americans and nature is changing,” the Nature of Americans report found, adding:19
“Adults and children alike spend evermore time indoors, participation in activities like hunting and fishing is stagnant or declining, and shifts in social expectations treat engagement with nature as a mere amenity.
These trends pose a nationwide problem, since overwhelming evidence shows the physical, psychological, and social wellbeing of humans depends on contact with nature.”
The report described a significant gap between Americans’ interest in nature and their efforts and ability to pursue that interest. While numerous factors are contributing to an increasing disconnect between Americans and nature, the report highlighted five of the most prominent:20
- Physical places, or a built environment, generally discourage contact with the natural world.
- Competing priorities for time, attention and money prevent contact with nature from becoming routine and habitual.
- Declining direct dependence on the natural world for livelihoods and subsistence allows Americans to orient their lives to other things.
- New technologies, especially electronic media, distract and captivate.
- Shifting expectations about what “good” contact to nature ought to be mean adults are generally satisfied with the relatively little time they spend outdoors in nature.
How to make nature part of your daily life
The good news is that it may require only 120 minutes a week to reap the many benefits that nature has to offer, and this is an amount that should be achievable for most people. Further, you needn’t spend two hours at one time; if you break it up into daily increments, that’s only about 17 minutes a day.
Taking time to walk outdoors during your lunch break, tend to your garden after work or walk your dog in the morning can all increase your exposure to beneficial green spaces. Try to make a habit of getting outdoors as much as possible; meal times, family gatherings and washing your dog are all opportunities to be outdoors.
Combining your workouts with nature by doing them outdoors is another good idea, and even talking a longer walk outdoors when you have time can be incredibly beneficial.
In one study, people who took a 90-minute walk in nature reported lower levels of rumination and had reduced neural activity in an area of the brain (the subgenual prefrontal cortex) linked to risk of mental illness such as depression than people who took a comparable walk in the city.21
As it stands, more than 50% of people live in urban areas, and this is expected to increase to 70% by 2050,22 which means making a conscious effort to increase access to green spaces will become ever more important — as will taking the time to use such spaces.
The Nature of Americans report suggested “transformative action” to achieve this, including the recommendations that follow to help connect Americans with nature:23
Emphasize regular, recurrent and routine engagement with nature, the outdoors and wildlife.
For adults and children, promote nature not only as a place for experiences, but also as a place for involvement and care.
Assure adults and children that time in nature can be (and even ought to be) social.
Provide socially safe and satisfying places outdoors, especially for urban and minority adults and children.
Work to lower the perceived costs of participation in recreational activities.
Promote experiences in nature that match Americans’ multidimensional values of nature.
Broaden programming to include a range of outcomes.
For adults, promote conservation efforts as a way to improve their overall community and quality of life.