We keep on experimenting with different things in order to remain healthy. But there’s a simple practice that could make you healthier.
Over the years, the fact that spending time in nature is somehow related to a healthier and happier life has become increasingly evident. But while some doctors have literally begun to ‘ prescribe ‘ natural world doses, as they would do, such procedures are far from being established.
Researchers from the United Kingdom have now taken a tiny but significant step towards one of the most crucial, unanswered issues. How much outdoor time is sufficient?
Based on a nationwide study of nearly 20,000 British adults between 2014 and 2016, the team believes they may have discovered a weekly ‘sweet spot’ for exposure to nature.
“With a contact of some 120 minutes with nature, the probability of reporting excellent health or elevated well-being was considerably higher compared to no nature touch last week,” conclude the authors.
The results are backed by previous studies, which discovered that living in greener areas is associated with reduced hazards of cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, emergencies of asthma, mental distress, death, and even myopia in kids. Some even landed earlier on that 120-minute limit.
Nevertheless, these findings are still in their infancy, and how much exposure we humans really need to reap the benefits remains uncertain.
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To further explore this concept, participants in the latest research were questioned how much nature they had experienced over the past seven days. The interviewer then randomly selected only one of these “nature diary entries” and asked for more information, including how long the visit was, who they came with, how they got there, and what they got up to.
Last but not least, they questioned each individual how their overall health was and how happy they were with their life.
Combining these answers, the authors discovered that people who spent less than two hours in nature throughout the week — including visits to forests, beaches, and parks — reported comparable health and well-being to those who did not experience any kind of nature.
However, on the flip side, those who spent more than two hours in nature recorded consistently greater rates of health and well-being; while those who spent more than three hours showed further gains only gradually and sometimes even experienced losses.
“We therefore tentatively suggest,” the authors write, “that 120 minutes of touch with nature per week may represent a kind of ‘ limit, ‘ below which there is inadequate contact to generate important health and well-being advantages, but above which such advantages are evident.”
While making any evidence-based suggestions on these results is still far too early. The authors believe that their job is a good starting point for further debate and research.
For example, their findings suggest that how these minutes of exposure are achieved every week does not matter, just that they are. In other words, if multiple short walks are needed in the forest to attain two hours of exposure to nature, then that seems to be as helpful as a long picnic in the park.
Moreover, this pattern was consistent across a wide range of British adults, irrespective of long-term diseases, disabilities, age, gender, wealth, or urbanity.
The authors claim that the threshold they have recognized is comparable to the recommended levels of physical activity or nutritional advice in terms of sheer magnitude.
“Because of the widespread importance for health and well-being of all these factors, we interpret the size of the ‘nature relationship’ as significant in terms of future public health consequences,” the authors conclude.
While many past studies have measured contact with nature by being close to green spaces alone, the latest study indicates that this is a significant flaw. Instead, the “threshold” for natural exposure appears to be present even for those living in regions with few natural environments.
“There is no need for poor local opportunities to be a barrier to exposure to nature,” the authors propose.
As interesting as these findings are, their research limitations have also been recognized by the team. Not only are the data subjective and self-reported, but there are several explanations that cannot yet be ruled out.
For example, it is uncertain whether the association between happiness, health, and exposure to nature is merely due to more time spent in nature by healthier and happier people.
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“One explanation for our results may be that time spent in nature is a proxy for physical activity, and this is what drives the relationship, not the contact with nature itself,” the authors acknowledge.
“In England, for example, more than 3 million adults fully or partially attain recommended levels of activity in natural environments.”
However, this latter explanation may not be as probable. The authors notice that even those who did not fulfill the rules for physical activity were subject to the threshold they found. In addition, activities such as Japanese “forest bathing” have also been connected to numerous psychological and physiological advantages, which merely involve sitting in nature.
The authors insist on further long-term research to investigate the real nature of this phenomenon in the same manner that physical activity guidelines were originally developed. It is simply too good to ignore the potential importance of spending time outside.
Scientific Reports have published the research.