Follow the “20-5-3 rule” for a sharper brain and less pandemic stress  

I often discuss the many harmful and unintended consequences of the government’s hysterical reaction to the coronavirus. But—there was one benefit to the lockdowns last year… 

Many people took to Nature in all their new-found free time!  

Of course, as a reader of mine, you’ve always known the great health benefits of the great outdoors. And now, a new study just confirmed that spending time in Nature can BOOST your brain function and SLASH your stress levels.  

The best part? Even short walks through a local park…or your own backyard…can help! 

The benefits of following a “20-5-3” rule 

Dr. Rachel Hopman, a neuroscientist at Northeastern University in Boston, recently led a study that looked at the effect of spending four days in Nature on the brain in 29 volunteers.  

Through electroencephalogram (EEG) testing, the research team found that spending time in Nature induces changes in the brain that promote focus and relaxation…and decrease anxiety and “rumination.”   

Dr. Hopman says that taking in the sights, sounds, smells, and feel of Nature apparently causes the brain to enter a state called “soft fascination.” And in this mindfulness-like state, your brain begins to relax and creatively process information. (As I describe in my book New World Mindfulness with my colleague Dr. Don McCown, this state of soft fascination is a lot like mindfulness…but without the stationary meditation.) 

Personally, I know that on my daily walks (often with my loyal canine, Lolly, and, formerly, with my beloved Great Dane, Max), I often get ideas about new topics for my Daily Dispatch. Or sometimes—I’ll suddenly figure out how to solve a problem or complete some other task. 

A lot of evidence also suggests that spending time outside in Nature supports mood and blood pressure, too. Not to mention, between April and October in most parts of the country, the exposure to strong sunlight triggers your skin’s natural production of vitamin D, which protects you against many chronic diseases. 

These findings led Hopman and her team to develop what she calls the “20-5-3 rule.” It’s a practical guide for how long to spend outdoors on a daily, monthly, and annual basis… 

Aim to spend 20 minutes a day in Nature 

The “20” in Hopman’s rule refers to how many minutes you should spend outdoors in Nature each day. Hopman says achieving this daily target benefits mood, improves cognition and memory, and induces feelings of well-being. You can achieve it by enjoying local areas of wilderness in your neighborhood (if you’re so lucky) or at a nearby park. But even strolling through a city botanical garden can work, too. 

In fact, prior research found that city dwellers who spent 20 minutes outdoors just three times per week reduced levels of cortisol, often called the “stress hormone.” (I published a paper with Dr. Ken Seaton 20 years ago on cortisol. We called it the “aging hormone.”) 

Note: If, during those same 20 minutes, you also engage in some moderate exercise (like walking, swimming, or gardening), you easily achieve the recommended physical activity target of 140 minutes per week, too!  

Immerse yourself into Nature for 5 hours each month 

The “5” in Hopman’s rule refers to the number of hours you should spend each month in a wilderness area, like a forested stated park. According to Hopman, when you enjoy this extended period in Nature, it really seems provide even more intensive benefits.  

In fact, a Finnish study found that city dwellers felt better, happier, and less stressed when they experienced five hours in Nature per month. And those who went out to a wilderness area had greater benefits than those confined to city parks.  

To me, that finding makes a lot of sense… 

Because on extended visits into Nature, you can really escape the “carpentered” world of flat surfaces, right angles, and square edges. And you can relax among all the soothing “fractals” (the phi ratio, or Fibonacci number) found everywhere in Nature. You may notice the branching of trees or leaves, the arrangement of seeds in a plant, or the ways creeks branch into rivers, and river deltas branch out to flow into the sea. Not to mention, you leave behind the harsh sounds, unpleasant smells, and noxious stimuli in urban areas to soak in the soothing sounds, scents, and scenery of Nature. 

Escape in Nature for 3 full days once a year 

Finally, Hopman recommends that everyone get completely off the grid to immerse themselves in Nature for three full days each year. She says your brain needs this time once a year to reset. 

Indeed, studies show that alpha wave activity in the brain increases in that amount of time in Nature. And one study, in particular, found that three days in the wilderness increased creativity and problem-solving abilities. (Those two characteristics must clearly be related.)  

In another study involving military veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), four days of white-water rafting reduced stress by 21 percent and PTSD symptoms by 29 percent with improved happiness, interpersonal relationships, and satisfaction. 

Hopman says on these longer sojourns, you need to go far enough away from “civilization” so that you can’t see or hear any of the sights or sounds of modern life. It should also be far enough away for you to see the amazing night sky—with its stars, constellations, asteroids, and meteors.  

There’s one important caveat, however, to all of Hopman’s findings. It turns out, using a mobile phone during your time in Nature negates the benefits. So make sure to leave your device at home…or at least, in the car. 

You can also leave the Nature gurus and chatterboxes at home too. In fact—the less talk, the better. (You need not hear the vox clamantis in deserto or “voice crying in the wilderness.”)  

I once had a very memorable three-day Nature excursion into the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness area in Idaho. One of the days, we visited Warm Lake, which sits in a natural  bowl at the top of the mountain range. It was the most isolated place I had been in the Lower 48.  

Then, in June 2018, we visited Alaska for seven days, cruising through mile after mile of uninhabited wilderness, before getting to Anchorage. (Anchorage is a very pleasant and warm place in June.)  

Those were more like once-every-10-year trips. But you can also benefit by spending a few days camping and hiking at state parks, which are typically less well-known and less crowded than national parks. (Find one near you by searching this website.)

In the end, as uncertainty about the coronavirus continues, I suggest spending as much time in Nature as you can. We know it will absolutely help boost your brain function, improve your mood, lower your stress, and even boost your immunity.

In addition, you can learn about my other top recommendations for staying safe in the coronavirus-era in my Pandemic Protection Playbook: How to become “immune ready” in every season.To gain access to this essential guide, click here now! 


“The ’20-5-3′ Rule Prescribes How Much Time to Spend Outside.” Men’s Health, 6/4/21. ( 

“Resting-state posterior alpha power changes with prolonged exposure in a natural environment.” Cogn. Research 2020; 5(51).