My dog Scout squeals with excitement as we pull up to the nature reserve 15 minutes outside of Boston where we live. The prospect of running free through the woods is almost more than he can bear.
It makes me think, Hey, maybe this guy is on to something. And maybe we should be excited to spend some time in nature as well. In fact, research shows that we actually need a weekly dose of nature to feel good.
A 2019 study by the University of Exeter School of Medicine found that people who spent between one and 119 minutes in nature were no more likely to report good health or high well-being than those who reported 0 minutes. But those who spent 120 minutes or more had consistently higher levels of both health and well-being than those who weren’t exposed. Positive associations peaked between 200 to 300 minutes per week with no further gain.
As an exercise scientist and health behavior change expert, I was curious about this question: Is exercise in nature a supplement? Specifically, is it healthier for me to walk in the woods than to walk in the city?
I found the answer is probably yes.
Here’s what we know
First, several mechanisms have been proposed to elicit positive outcomes in response to exposure to nature—in particular, independent of increased physical activity. These mechanisms include reduced psychological stress, restored attention, exposure to cleaner air, and improved social networks.
A 2020 study by the University of Iceland compared three conditions: walking in nature, watching a video of the same natural scene, and walking on a treadmill at the gym. Participants in this study completed their assigned condition twice – once during a non-stress period (no academic exams) and then during a stress period (exam period).
Each condition was matched for time (eg, 40-minute walk or video viewing). Cortisol and positive and negative affect were assessed before and after the assigned intervention.
The researchers found that during the stressful exam period, the nature walking group had significantly lower cortisol levels than those who simply watched nature videos. They also had significantly higher positive affect scores compared to both groups.
So what does this mean? During stressful times in life, walking in nature may be better than walking in other contexts (eg, the gym).
A 2012 study from the University of Michigan also found that walking in nature led to better memory and positive affect than walking in an urban environment.
A recent meta-analysis suggests that nature walks have a positive effect on anxiety and depression.
Why is this important?
In 2017, an estimated 792 million people were affected by mental health problems worldwide. My guess is that this has gone up since the COVID-19 pandemic.
The global economic burden of mental disorders is projected to be $6 trillion in 2030.
We know that exercise has a beneficial effect on mental health. Seeking opportunities for physical activity in nature or green spaces can enhance these effects.
What do you have to do?
I recognize that not everyone has access to nature.
That’s good—even living in greener urban areas is associated with a lower likelihood of cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, mental distress, and ultimately mortality. So if you live in an urban area, looking for green spaces in your city is beneficial.
A popular app that I like lists all the nature trails in your area that can help you find opportunities. Once you have found opportunities to be in nature, here is what I would recommend:
- Add at least three planned walks in green spaces, especially during stressful times. If that seems like too much, try at least one weekly walk.
- Plan at least one weekend a month to spend extended time at a state park or somewhere you can hike.
- Plan a longer nature trip at least twice a year.