I have known for a long time that spending time in the great outdoors is good for our health and well being but last year the researchers at Exeter University released a paper
to say that 120 minutes of nature exposure a week was enough to feel those benefits to our health that we as outdoor practitioners attain through our daily jobs. Well that’s what some of the press took from that paper. I have had a read through and found that that’s not exactly what they were saying, you can read the whole research paper here
Whilst we battle through the minefield that is lockdown and social distancing
For years now studies have shown that living in greener urban environments is associated with lower health problems (cardiovascular disease, diabetes etc) and greater quantities of natural environment in your neighbourhood are also associated with better self reported health and well being. So it is clear to see that time spent outside in mother nature has its benefits.
This study found that time spent in nature below 120 minutes gave so little contact with nature there would be no real benefit. The 120 minutes mark should be considered the ‘threshold’ because the findings show that time spent outside above 120 minutes gave marginally decreasing returns and from 200-300 minutes somewhat surprisingly the relationship with our health flattened or even dropped. This is per week and so can be spread between weekly exercise, walking the dog and walks to the shops.
There is some suggestion with this study that nature exposure beyond 120 mins a week may have some additional benefits that are not visible with the way the data was collected. So more research is required I think. However one explanation with the findings may be that time spent in nature is usually the time we set aside for physical activity and it is that activity that is the driving force with “going outside”. Over 3 million adults in the UK reach their recommended activity levels fully, or in part, in natural settings and of course exercise makes us feel good so could possibly give false findings (this is all explained in the paper). Experimental research, however, indicates that some benefits cannot be due solely to physical activity. Research into shinrin-yoku (Japanese “forest bathing”), for instance, suggested that various psycho-physiological benefits can be gained from merely sitting passively in natural vs. urban settings. Moreover, physical activity conducted in nature may be more psychologically beneficial than in other locations, suggesting a complex interaction between the two which requires further research to fully understand
It draws on other research from Cimprich and Ronis showing that patients diagnosed with cancer scored higher on several attention tasks compared to standard care controls after a five week period of spending 120 mins per week in nature, it was argued that the 120 mins per week of nature exposure helped the patients restore cognitive resources depleted by the stress of their diagnosis and treatment. This struck a cord with me as I myself have been through the chemotherapy department and any time I could physical make it to a natural environment I would, the weekly workout my body was going through struggled to put thoughts in any coherent order and it was the time spent shuffling or sitting outdoors that made me feel “normal”. More research is required to find the threshold across a wide range of situations and how much natural exposure an individual requires to maintain well being and good health although this research has shown the effects on well being were observed after just five weeks.
Our contact with nature is more than just a complex multi-sensory experience, to varying degrees personal histories and meanings, longstanding cultural practices, and a sense of place play some role in the benefits realised
The paper finishes with the conclusion (see below) and I do hope that more research is carried out to further our understanding of our relationship with our natural environment.
To conclude, although this research suggests that spending over 120 mins a week in nature may be an important “threshold” for health and well-being across a broad range of the adult population in England, we believe that more prospective cohort, longitudinal, and experimental studies are required before any clear conclusions can be drawn. In addition to improving the duration-exposure estimates used here, more research is also needed to understand the impact of different activities undertaken, as well as the effect of environmental quality and personal meaning. Nevertheless, we see our findings as an important starting point for discussions around providing simple, evidence-based recommendations about the amount of time spent in natural settings that could result in meaningful promotion of health and well-being.
So regardless of how we feel about this study it is clear to see that time spent outside in nature has its benefits (we all knew that) and we now have a research paper to back it up.