According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the average American spends 90% of their life indoors¹. This trend is associated with our society’s continued shift towards urban areas, coupled with our increasing reliance on technology². Whatever the cause, the fact is that spending too much time indoors can have negative effects on our mental health.
Did you know that in 2020, 1 in 5 U.S. adults experienced mental illness³? Now more than ever, it’s so important to be intentional about nurturing our mental health. One of the easiest ways to improve your mental health is by spending more time in nature. From a short walk through your neighborhood park to rock climbing in the remote areas, spending time in nature is linked to improved mental well-being⁴.
The Benefits of Time Spent Outdoors
How did the above picture make you feel? If it made you feel even slightly different, imagine the impact of actually being immersed in nature. According to psychologist Lisa Nisbet, PhD, “There is mounting evidence, from dozens and dozens of researchers, that nature has benefits for both physical and psychological human wellbeing. You can boost your mood just by walking in nature, even in urban nature. And the sense of connection you have with the natural world seems to contribute to happiness even when you’re not physically immersed in nature⁴. This is to say that individuals who feel a strong sense of identification with nature can experience positive mental benefits, even when they can’t be outdoors.
Studies have shown that nature is associated with increased positive affect, happiness, and positive social interactions. Nature has also been linked to better sleep quality and reduced stress. Furthermore, “these impacts on sleep and stress may entail decreased risk for mental illness, as sleep problems and stress are major risk factors for mental illness, especially depression².”
Where Should I Start?
There are so many ways to get your daily dose of nature – so which environments are best? We will explore a few different options below, but remember that just spending any time in nature is much more important than the type of nature.
Research is beginning to show that nature experiences in rural areas and areas of “high environmental quality” (such as nature preserves) can be more psychologically beneficial than time spent in urban green spaces⁵. Furthermore, greater biodiversity in an area’s plant and animal species is associated with higher levels of mental wellbeing⁶. It may not always be possible to visit remote environments, but be sure to soak up the mental benefits when you can!
Urban Green Spaces
For those of us living and/or working in cities, urban green spaces are one of the most accessible options for spending time in nature. “If you have a break from work and you’ve only got half an hour, then a wild remote place is no use to you at all,” says Dr. Mathew P. White, an environmental psychologist⁴. Policymakers and city planners continue to understand the importance of green infrastructure, which includes everything from urban parks, to street trees, to green roofs. Urban green spaces not only lead to improved quality of life, but also environmental and economic benefits⁷.
A lot of atttention in past years has been put on green spaces (whether remote or urban), but what about blue spaces? Blue spaces include any natural or manmade water source, such as rivers, lakes, ponds, and coastal areas. This is an emerging research topic, but the evidence thus far shows that these marine and freshwater spaces are associated with improved mental health, well-being and the promotion of physical activity⁸.
Did you know that images of nature can be beneficial? You may have even noticed some psychological boosts from the images in this blog. One studied showed that individuals who watched videos of nature experienced “increased connectedness to nature, attentional capacity, positive emotions, and ability to reflect on a life problem,” but these effects were stronger for actual nature vs. virtual nature⁹. So, while the real deal is still the most beneficial, this is great news for people who are unable to get outdoors, such as those with illnesses or physical disabilities.
How Much Time is Enough?
A 2019 study showed that individuals spending at least 120 minutes per week in nature were more likely to experience greater health and well-being¹⁰. These positive effects “were the same whether they got their dose of nature in a single 120-minute session or spread out over the course of the week.” (If you’re curious, this comes out to a minimum of only 17 minutes per day!)
The peak of these positive benefits occurred when individuals spent between 200-300 minutes in nature per week, with no measured gains past that point. So, if you aim for around 30 minutes in nature per day, you’re golden!
We hope this blog helped you understand more about the benefits of nature on our mental health. Our mental health and physical health are incredibly connected, so it’s important to take care of both. Take this as your sign to go outside right now and get a breath of fresh air!