We spend a whopping 90% of our time indoors and the lack of sunlight and fresh air could be taking its toll on our health.
Concentrations of pollutants such as carbon monoxide, mold and volatile organic compounds are higher indoors; indoor air pollution has been linked to headaches, fatigue, respiratory illnesses and heart disease. Too little exposure to natural light has also been associated with increases in cortisol, the stress hormone, and lower levels of melatonin increasing the risk for depression and poor sleep.
You don’t have to set up an office at the local park or trade the treadmill for a run in the park (though both are great ideas for boosting vitamin D levels). The latest research, published in the journal Scientific Reports, found spending 120 minutes per week outdoors was enough to boost health and well-being.
The benefits were the same regardless of how the time outdoors was broken up, explains study co-author Ian Alcock, PhD, research fellow at the University of Exeter. In other words, you can head outdoors for 120 minutes on a Saturday or spend 20 minutes outside every day. The more time you soak up the sun, the better.
“Positive associations peaked between 200–300 minutes [and] the increase in the likelihood of reporting good health and high well-being was markedly and progressively greater for increased exposure over 2–3 hours,” Alcock adds.
The research wasn’t set up to assess the reasons nature promotes well-being but Alcock suggests nature provides a break from focused attention (hello, deadlines), stress reduction, social interaction and opportunities to be active.
“We observed comparable benefits among those who did and who did not achieve recommended exercise guidelines,” he adds.
Setting aside 120 (or more) minutes per week to spend outdoors is a small investment of time that offers big health benefits.
In addition to the perception of improved health and well-being noted in Scientific Reports, other studies have found clear associations between spending time with nature and health outcomes. Natural sunlight and time in nature have been linked to reduced perception of pain; improved vision and enhanced mood and concentration. A 2018 study also found spending time in green spaces was associated with a decreased risk of Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and pre-term death.
Your workouts might improve, too. Research published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology found spending 20 minutes outdoors provided an energy boost equivalent to drinking one cup of coffee (with no post-caffeine crash).
Among groups that hiked outdoors for 45 minutes or walked on a treadmill for the same length of time, those who spent time outside felt more alert and less fatigued after their workouts, according to 2017 research.
Margaret M. Hansen, EdD, a professor of nursing at the University of San Francisco has studied forest bathing, the ancient practice of spending time in the forest for health and well-being, and believes in the healing power of the natural world, noting, “When I walk in the forest and I am mindful of five senses … I feel the stress melt away.”
Hansen’s research, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, referred to nature therapy as “a potential universal health model” for stress reduction and well-being.
“Look at how long mankind has existed in urban areas and how many diseases have come to be common in this short period … compared to times when mankind survived and thrived in more natural environments without the current major disorders,” she says. “It may be wise to return to nature and [experience the benefits to] health and well-being.”
All it takes is 120 minutes per week.