I write quite often about the health benefits of spending time out in Nature. For one, it exposes you to direct sunlight—which can trigger your skin’s production of the all-important vitamin D.
Of course, spending time in Nature also reduces stress and anxiety. (Something we could all use a little help with this year, as the coronavirus pandemic continues to play out.) And now, researchers have determined exactly how long you need to spend in Nature to counteract the harms of modern stress.
Cut stress by spending time in Nature
For this new study, researchers asked participants to spend some time outside in Nature three days a week for eight weeks. The participants were free to choose exactly how long they spent relaxing in Nature and where they would go. (Basically, they were asked to find any spot outdoors where they personally felt connected with Nature.)
There were a few restrictions, however…
For example, these experiences had to take place alone in Nature, during daylight hours, without access to a phone, social media, the internet, or reading material. And there was to be no aerobic exercise during these experiences. So, basically, the participants were asked to simply meditate in Nature (without directly being prescribed breathing, mindfulness, or physical exercises).
Then, the researchers measured the participants’ cortisol levels by taking saliva samples before and after spending time in Nature.
Your adrenal glands naturally produce this hormone when you’re feeling stressed or anxious. However, when cortisol levels remain high for long periods, it can lead to any number of problems—including chronic inflammation, high blood sugar, weight gain, and high blood pressure. (I published a paper with Dr. Ken Seaton 20 years ago showing how cortisol acts as “the aging hormone.”)
The magic starts to happen after 20 minutes
It turns out, after spending just 20 minutes in Nature, the participants began to exhibit significantly reduced cortisol levels. Plus, when participants spent an additional 20 minutes sitting or walking in Nature, cortisol declined at its greatest rate. (Beyond 40 minutes in Nature, the benefits continued to accumulate, but at a slower rate.)
In their conclusion, the researchers said they “always” knew that spending time in Nature could reduce stress and offer significant health benefits. But this study is unique because it zeroes in on how much time is enough, how often is best, and what kinds of experience benefit us the most.
Plus, since the study was so well-designed, I personally have a lot of faith in its validity…
For example, instead of setting up a strict protocol that the participants were required to follow, the study’s flexible design allowed the men and women to determine where, when, and how much time they would spend in Nature. Therefore, the researchers could gather multiple, different data points—allowing them to accurately and reliably determine the most effective “doses” of Nature for lowering cortisol. In fact, in a news article I read about the study, the author suggested that health practitioners can now use this knowledge to prescribe “Nature pills.”
It certainly seems as though talking about taking Nature as a “pill” is something the mainstream can relate to. Although I’m not quite sure I’m comfortable with talking about it in pharmaceutical terms…it just doesn’t feel right.
In the end, spending time in Nature offers tremendous benefits for the mind and body.
So, this weekend, as the daytime temperatures have started to drop around the country, I hope you get to spend some time walking or just sitting and breathing in Nature.
“Urban Nature Experiences Reduce Stress in the Context of Daily Life Based on Salivary Biomarkers.” Front. Psychol., 4/4/2019. doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00722