Overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones, like adrenaline, can increase the risk of mental health issues like anxiety, depression, and memory and concentration impairment; and lead to heart disease, weight gain and high blood pressure, among other health problems.
Concentrated time spent outside, on the other hand, is linked to improved sleep quality, mood and cognition; lower blood pressure; and relief in depressive tendencies and a range of other stress-related issues.
Up until recently though, it was unclear just how much time outdoors was needed to feel these benefits. A 2019 study finally answered that question: after just 20 minutes per day spent in nature, or two hours per week, people reported better health and a greater sense of well-being than those who didn’t go outside.
Several studies suggest spending time outdoors provides an added sense of well-being – specifically for women. According to one study, time in nature serves as an escape from pressures unique to women in everyday life (i.e., conforming to expectations about weight, appearance, demeanor, etc., and putting in longer hours on the job, childcare and housework), which in turn boosts self-esteem and happiness, lowers stress levels, and positively effects both mental and physical health. Studies also show that women need a longer exposure time to nature to see a measurable stress reduction. That’s why, explains Dr. Nooshin Razani, who runs the Center for Nature and Health at UCSF, women shouldn’t feel that taking the time for “self-care” outside is an indulgent or extra thing to do, but rather something everyone deserves as a critical component of overall health.
Regardless of gender, Dr. Razani says the results of these studies listing the benefits to our well-being of spending time outside are unsurprising. “What we should be asking at this point is: what’s the impact of not being in nature?” she says.
“We evolved to be outdoors, after all. Now we likely spend the whole day inside. That’s why there’s now a national movement of doctors talking about time in nature the way we talk about reducing tobacco or alcohol use: as a way to promote healthy active living.”
Better physical health
As well as the compelling benefits to mental health, researchers are also increasingly finding links between time outdoors and better physical health outcomes. These include decreases in incidences of diabetes and cardio-vascular mortality, lower blood pressure and heart rate, and better immune system function. As a result, more and more doctors are part of the rapidly growing movement of “nature prescription” programs that literally prescribe nature’s innate health benefits.
So, what does a nature prescription look like? Of course, that depends that varies on the patient and condition, but it might mean that a doctor prescribes going outside three times a week for half an hour per session with a follow-up to monitor results. Nature prescriptions are increasingly gaining traction as legitimate medical treatments for a range of conditions from heart disease, hypertension, high cholesterol and diabetes, to chronic stress, depression and anxiety, insomnia, and even PTSD.