Research by the universities of Exeter and Uppsala, published in Scientific Reports, found that people who spend at least 2 hours a week in natural settings such as town parks, woodlands, country parks and beaches are more likely to report good health and higher psychological wellbeing than those who don't. However, no such benefits were found for people who visited for less than 2 hours.
This is the paper's abstract:
"Spending time in natural environments can benefit health and well-being, but exposure-response relationships are under-researched. We examined associations between recreational nature contact in the last seven days and self-reported health and well-being. Participants (n = 19,806) were drawn from the [MENE] Monitor of Engagement with the Natural Environment Survey (2014/15–2015/16); weighted to be nationally representative. Weekly contact was categorised using 60 min blocks. Analyses controlled for residential greenspace and other neighbourhood and individual factors. Compared to no nature contact last week, the likelihood of reporting good health or high well-being became significantly greater with contact ≥120 mins (e.g. 120–179 mins: ORs [95%CIs]: Health = 1.59 [1.31–1.92]; Well-being = 1.23 [1.08–1.40]). Positive associations peaked between 200–300 mins per week with no further gain. The pattern was consistent across key groups including older adults and those with long-term health issues. It did not matter how 120 mins of contact a week was achieved (e.g. one long vs. several shorter visits/week). Prospective longitudinal and intervention studies are a critical next step in developing possible weekly nature exposure guidelines comparable to those for physical activity."
ScienceDaily quotes Dr Mat White, of the University of Exeter Medical School, who said:
"It's well known that getting outdoors in nature can be good for people's health and wellbeing but until now we've not been able to say how much is enough. The majority of nature visits in this research took place within just two miles of home so even visiting local urban greenspaces seems to be a good thing. Two hours a week is hopefully a realistic target for many people, especially given that it can be spread over an entire week to get the benefit."
What to make of all this? Well, three things strike me:
1. In the study, up to 59 minutes of contact time per week was not associated with better outcomes than zero mins, and there was also no linear increase above 60 mins. Longer durations were not associated with better outcomes. Whilst you can see that this is what the stats throw up, it is ridiculous to argue that being in the park for 59 minutes is not worthwhile, but adding an extra minute turns it into a valuable experience. How could the authors write this?
They are on safer ground when it comes to talking about an upper limit, but even here there will be a tapering off, rather than a cliff edge.
2. It seems that having 60 1 minute experiences (or 120 half-minute ones, etc) is the same as having 1 60 minute experience. Lunacy.
3. But what's to count as a natural environment? As ever in such studies, it's rather contrived. Participants were introduced to the survey as follows (my emphasis added in bold):
“I am going to ask you about occasions in the last week when you spent your time out of doors. By out of doors we mean open spaces in and around towns and cities, including parks, canals and nature areas; the coast and beaches; and the countryside including farmland, woodland, hills and rivers. This could be anything from a few minutes to all day. It may include time spent close to your home or workplace, further afield or while on holiday in England. However this does not include: routine shopping trips or; time spent in your own garden.”
This assumption (it may be a prejudice) against all gardens as natural environments is plain silly, given how much biodiversity many contain. They are, of course, hardly natural, but what is? Certainly not urban parks, canals, most nature areas, farmland, and most woodland. I spend 3 hours on Sunday in my garden, working away – mostly undoing the tendency of the second law of thermodynamics to bring disorder and chaos. There were periods of contemplation – mostly of bees – as well. Why was none of that (well the first 2 hours) to count in the well-being stakes?
Authors too much in awe of the numbers, I fancy. The paper is available here.
Mathew P. White, Ian Alcock, James Grellier, Benedict W. Wheeler, Terry Hartig, Sara L. Warber, Angie Bone, Michael H. Depledge, Lora E. Fleming. Spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature is associated with good health and wellbeing. Scientific Reports, 2019; 9 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s41598-019-44097-3