Walk in nature for 2 hours to get rid of stress

by Wricha Mishra

July 8, 2019

We all know that nature can nurture. Recent research shows that simply sitting in nature even sans physical activity can tremendously reduce stress levels. For the first time, scientists have come up with a threshold of 2 hours to be the most optimum amount of time that one should spend in nature to get rid of maximum stress. Read on to find out more about the utility of this ‘nature pill’ in battling stress!

A free and effective stress buster

“What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare?”
– Willian Henry Davies

Welsh poet W. H. Davies, through one of his classic works ‘Leisure’, encapsulated how the fast-paced urban life deprives us of the little joys in life, like standing and staring at the trees or smelling a rose. A very recent study published in Nature in June 2019 tells us to spend more time in nature and do exactly these things to reduce our stress levels!

The health benefits that come with spending time amidst nature have been well-known for decades and seem like common sense to most of us. This is evident from the enormous cohort of urban dwellers who are increasingly turning to nature to battle their everyday stress. However, the dose of this ‘nature pill’ which is most effective in combating stress had remained unknown till recently.

A nature pill for better health

This study in Nature reported for the first time that spending 120 minutes in nature was associated with most self-reported health benefits and better overall well-being. Physicians have been prescribing the ‘nature pill’ to aid treatments of depression, stress, and anxiety. We also know that merely living in a greener neighbourhood can bring great benefits to a person’s physical and mental well-being.

The study by White et al. showed that people who spent two hours or more in nature every week were more likely to report good health and satisfaction with life, a reliable estimate of well-being. The researchers were able to come up with this optimum threshold of 2 hours after analysing surveyed data from a large study comprising of 20,000 subjects in England, the largest study gathering data from people’s contact with the natural world.

Benefits of spending time in nature

It doesn’t matter if the 2 hours are spent in nature all at once or if it is divided into shorter stretches throughout the week. Research in ‘shinrin-yoku’ or Japanese forest bathing had previously shown that simply spending time in natural environments passively can get you more psychological health benefits as compared to spending time in urban settings. It doesn’t matter if you spend 2 hours sitting on a bench park, walking your dog or exercising.

Nature reduces stress in everyone

Even more interesting is the fact that the health benefits do not show any disparity between different groups of people like men and women, young and old, rich and poor and surprisingly, even urban or rural! The benefits of the 2-hour nature pill are the same for all. Scientists also explain that since the same threshold of 2 hours applies to people with long term health issues and disabilities, the current health of a person does not make them more or less susceptible to derive health benefits from nature.

Another recent study led by Dr. Mary Carol Hunter tested the levels of stress hormones – Salivary cortisol and amylase in subjects before and after they spent a fixed amount of time in nature. In compliance with many other studies, the authors reported a decrease in both salivary cortisol and salivary amylase levels of the subjects after a nature experience. Although we don’t understand why being in nature is so beneficial, the sense of tranquillity and calmness of the mind that we feel when in nature might be the key.

The simplest prescription for better health

These studies are especially interesting because they have helped us understand better the contribution of complex parameters like – duration, frequency, and quality of nature. A nature experience, here, is defined as spending time in a natural environment for more than 10 minutes, at least 3 times a week. Most of the subjects in these studies visited local urban areas filled with greenery, which means that you can visit the park in your neighbourhood as well as the community garden on your way back home from work, to derive the same benefits. The lack of disparity between different groups further might serve as an incentive for more people to spend time with nature.

The most effective nature dose – 2 hours

Spending more than 2 hours in the green goodness doesn’t increase the health benefits, making 120 minutes the optimum threshold. But is this finding really surprising? Nature is where our species used to spend most of our time in, until the advent of the industrial era, where laptop screens and closed ceilings have promptly replaced the green goodness and open skies.

These studies comprised of only British subjects but the threshold for people in other parts of the world is likely to be very close to 120 minutes. Thus, more studies looking at these trends in other populations are necessary before we can make conclusions about its’ use in global healthcare. Some countries like Scotland already prescribe regular nature walks to all their patients!

Nature can help reduce stress in everyone

The quantifications of the nature pill can contribute to the policy process by giving recommendations regarding the most effective way to utilise nature to promote health and well-being. Dr. Hunter believes that in the near future we could be able to aid healthcare practitioners even more by helping them know exactly what dose of the nature-pill to prescribe to the patients!

Thus, we are now at a very interesting starting point with the characterisation of the nature pill in terms of duration, frequency and nature quality – a tool that could break new ground in healthcare. As for us, isn’t 2 hours a week a very realistic target to achieve, given that we can spread it throughout the week as per our convenience? The message is clear, get outdoors, breathe in the smell of petrichor on a rainy day, relish the whiff of frangipani on a beautiful summer morning and alleviate stress!

References
1. White, M. P. et al. Spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature is associated with good health and wellbeing. Sci. Rep. 9, 7730 (2019).
2. Hunter, M. R., Gillespie, B. W. & Chen, S. Y.-P. Urban Nature Experiences Reduce Stress in the Context of Daily Life Based on Salivary Biomarkers. Front. Psychol. 10, 722 (2019).

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