When I talk to people about living a prosperous life I always advocate saving money, loving, being spiritual and taking good care of your body. Taking care of your physical self means exercising but also spending time in nature. Yet again I have found that what I’ve been recommending for years is now being backed up by science.
Researchers have found that spending twenty minutes walking or siting in a place that makes you feel in contact with nature will significantly lower your stress hormone levels. The study, ‘Urban Nature Experiences Reduce Stress in the Context of Daily Life Based on Salivary Biomarkers’ is published in the latest Frontiers in Psychology journal.
“We know that spending time in nature reduces stress, but until now it was unclear how much is enough, how often to do it, or even what kind of nature experience will benefit us,” said lead researcher Dr Mary Carol Hunter, an Associate Professor at the University of Michigan.
“Our study shows that for the greatest payoff, in terms of efficiently lowering levels of the stress hormone cortisol, you should spend 20 to 30 minutes sitting or walking in a place that provides you with a sense of nature.”
Dr Hunter describes this 20 minutes as a no-cost nature pill
A free and natural stress-relieving remedy
She believes these ‘nature pills’ are a low-cost solution to reducing the negative health impacts stemming from growing urbanization and indoor lifestyles dominated by watching screens.
For the study, Dr Hunter and her colleagues designed an experiment that would give a realistic estimate of how much time people need in nature to feel better.
Over eight weeks, participants were asked to go into nature for 10 minutes or more, at least three times a week. Levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, were measured from saliva samples taken before and after once every two weeks.
“Participants were free to choose the time of day, duration, and the place of their nature experience, which was defined as anywhere outside that in the opinion of the participant, made them feel like they've interacted with nature,” Dr Hunter said.
If you live in a city, even a small park, a patch of grass, or any area with trees suffices.
“There were a few constraints to minimize factors known to influence stress: take the nature pill in daylight, no aerobic exercise, and avoid the use of social media, internet, phone calls, conversations and reading,” Dr Hunter said.
The researchers did try to make allowances for busy lives.
“Building personal flexibility into the experiment, allowed us to identify the optimal duration of a nature pill, no matter when or where it is taken, and under the normal circumstances of modern life, with its unpredictability and hectic scheduling,” Dr Hunter said.
“We accommodated day to day differences in a participant's stress status by collecting four snapshots of cortisol change due to a nature pill. It also allowed us to identify and account for the impact of the ongoing, natural drop in cortisol level as the day goes on, making the estimate of effective duration more reliable.”
Nature is what your soul needs
The data revealed that just a twenty-minute nature experience was enough to significantly reduce cortisol levels. But if you spent a little more time immersed in a nature experience, 20 to 30 minutes sitting or walking, cortisol levels dropped at an ever greater rate. After that, additional de-stressing benefits continue to add up but at a slower rate.
Dr Hunter said the experiment results will now help health professionals like doctors make recommendations on how much time people should spend in nature to lower their stress levels
“Healthcare practitioners can use our results as an evidence-based rule of thumb on what to put in a nature-pill prescription,” Dr Hunter said. “It provides the first estimates of how nature experiences impact stress levels in the context of normal daily life. It breaks new ground by addressing some of the complexities of measuring an effective nature dose.”
Dr Hunter hopes the study will prompt further research in the area.
“Our experimental approach can be used as a tool to assess how age, gender, seasonality, physical ability and culture influence the effectiveness of nature experiences on well-being. This will allow customised nature pill prescriptions, as well as a deeper insight on how to design cities and wellbeing programs for the public.”
The findings reflect other studies which say getting into nature helps stay stress-free.
This is the first time researchers have conducted a study on how much time we need in nature to counteract the effects of modern stress.
The study complements research published in The International Journal of Environmental Health Research journal, which found that spending 20 minutes in an urban park could make you happier, regardless of whether you were exercising or resting.
“Overall, we found park visitors reported an improvement in emotional well-being after the park visit,” lead author and University of Alabama at Birmingham professor Hon K. Yuen said in a media statement.
“However, we did not find levels of physical activity are related to improved emotional well-being. Instead, we found time spent in the parks is related to improved emotional well-being.”
For this study, 94 adults visited three urban parks, completing a questionnaire about their subjective well-being before and after their park visit.
An accelerometer tracked their physical activity. A visit lasting between 20 and 25 minutes gave the best results, with a roughly 64 per cent increase in the participants' self-reported well-being, even if they didn't move much in the park.
This means that anyone can benefit from visiting a nearby park, regardless of age or physical ability. Do you know an older person, baby or disabled friend who you could take to a park?
The study's co-author and University of Alabama professor, Gavin Jenkins, acknowledges there were only a small number of study participants, but said the study findings prove the importance of parks.
“There is increasing pressure on green space within urban settings,” Prof Jenkins said in the media statement. “Planners and developers look to replace green space with residential and commercial property. The challenge facing cities is that there is increasing evidence about the value of city parks but we continue to see the demise of theses spaces.”
Ultimately these studies found that stopping yourself form getting burnt out may be as simple as taking a short walk in the park!
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ABOUT PAT MESITI
Pat Mesiti is a best-selling author, coach and educator in the area of personal development. Having built some of Australia’s largest people-driven organisations, Pat understands the power of harnessing human potential. He has shared the stage with some of the world’s great business minds and has sold over millions of copies of his books and materials.