Spending time in nature is good for our wellbeing. We know it can help combat cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, and stress - but how do we tell when we’ve actually spent enough time outdoors to make a difference?
That question was vexing environmental psychologist Matthew White, so he and colleagues at the University of Exeter set out to find the answer – and they managed to enlist the UK Government’s help in the process.
The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) conducts an annual survey called Monitor of Engagement with the Natural Environment – measuring use of green spaces in the UK. White and his team persuaded the Government to also gather data on health, wellbeing and time spent in those natural environments.
So how long then?
With almost 20,000 responses from two years’ worth of results, the team at Exeter were surprised to see a clear and consistent figure emerge.
They found that spending at least two hours per week in nature was strongly correlated with reports of being in good health and having high levels of wellbeing.
“I was very surprised, to be honest,” White commented. He added that “we had no idea” there would be such a clear conclusion.
Another surprise came in the discovery that it didn’t seem to matter whether people spent two hours in nature in one go or had a series of shorter outdoor experiences.
Asked by Psychology Today why he thought nature had a positive effect on wellbeing, White responded: “One mechanism is it encourages more exercise. In terms of the passive benefits, what I think is happening is that modern urban living is placing so many cognitive demands on us. This is downtime for our brain, giving us the chance to have space to think.”
Does it matter where?
The researchers also analysed the types of natural environment being experienced and noticed variations in the level of benefit reported.
“The type of environment does matter,” explained White. “There’s really good evidence to suggest that the marine environment and mountains are the top hitters. But the point here is that most people are going to urban parks. When you look at the data, it’s still okay. The 120-minute threshold still applies. The park is better than walking down a busy street.”