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Spending at least two hours a week in nature can significantly promote health and wellbeing, a study published by the journal Scientific Reports has found. The study, which was led by the University of Exeter and funded by NIHR, saw roughly 20,000 participants given up to 120 minutes of recreational nature contact over seven days. It found that no matter how the contact time was broken up – be it in shorter stints in nature or longer visits – the likelihood of reporting good health or high well-being became significantly greater when spending more than or the equivalent of 120 minutes in nature. The positive results were consistent across all groups, including older adults and people with long-term health issues. For those who spent fewer than two hours outdoors, no benefits were observed. 

The study piggybacks off a number of similar studies focusing on nature as a healing mechanism – one meta-analysis published last year also found that people who spend more time in green spaces see significantly reduced risks for a number of chronic illnesses, as well as improvements in diastolic blood pressure, salivary cortisol and heart rate. Interestingly, this particular study concluded that the health benefits are likely closely linked to the phytochemicals that trees emit, which humans then breathe in. There is also evidence that simply living in a greener neighbourhood can be good for human health, the world’s largest study collecting data on people’s weekly contact with the natural world, has found – most likely because of the reduction of air pollution. The study relied on data from Great Britain and Northern Ireland’s Annual Population Survey, which asked 25,518 people questions about their wellbeing, including “Overall, how satisfied with your life are you nowadays?” and “How happy did you feel yesterday?”. The responses were analysed alongside data on the United Kingdom’s 20,000 public green spaces, which ultimately found that those living within 300 metres of an urban green space showed “statistically significant” boosts in happiness and life satisfaction.

Society has recognised for some time now the potential healing power of nature; its ability to calm, soothe and invigorate all at once, however the irrefutable results of the University of Exeter study have paved the way for more advanced studies of the relationship between man and nature. It also justifies the increasingly popular habit of embarking on ‘forest therapy’ retreats – the new age equivalent of ‘art therapy’.

Forest therapy is focused on “slowing down and, in the process, reconnecting with nature and ourselves,” said certified forest therapy guide Jewels Daugherty, who has been working with the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy for many years now. Though many may initially shun the concept of ‘forest bathing’, thinking it akin to far fetched ‘healing retreats’ that rely on either the consumption of dry herbs, ayahuasca journeys, and forms of psychedelic enlightenment, forest bathing simply involves walking through the woods, staying in the present moment, shunning your phone, and allowing your senses to connect with nature. A typical forest therapy group walk, with a certified guide, may typically last around three hours. During the walk, which usually takes place in a remote forest or wildlife patch, the guide will offer a number of gentle invitations – from asking you to feel leaves on the ground, to listening to the sounds of a stream, to focusing on a mountain in the distance.

“(Forest bathing) brings numerous benefits, as anecdotal as a lifted mood and as documented as lowered cortisol concentrations tied to decreased stress,” Jewels continued. According to the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy, doctors are now even writing “nature prescriptions” for patients, instructing them to spend more time outdoors given its documented ability to provide a range of health benefits, including improved cognition. Some studies also suggest possible links between green spaces and cancer outcomes, neurological outcomes, improved sleep, and certain biomarkers – but further research is still required. 

The practise of forest bathing or ‘Shinrin-Yoku’ was developed in Japan during the 1980s, as a means of slowing down to connect with nature. Since, it has become central to most Japanese medicine and preventative health care – and other countries are catching on. Last year, the U.S. National Park Service launched a five-year Healthy Parks Healthy People plan, which paves a path for utilising the country’s national parks as health resources to benefit society through improving mental, spiritual and physical health.  Large, unregulated wilderness therapy programs located all over the U.S. already treat thousands of teenagers with drug and alcohol addiction each year. Operating under the umbrella of the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs’, these wilderness programs have been shown to positively influence young adults suffering addiction problems, using a holistic approach that “incorporates a blend of therapeutic modalities” including psychotherapy practise, but in the context of wilderness environments and backcountry travel. The future of healthcare is before us, and it appears to involve simply stepping outside.

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