Two Hours a Week in Nature Can Boost Your Health and Well-Being, Research Finds
New research has given credence to the age-old wisdom that spending time outside is good for you. A study recently published in Nature's Scientific Reports journal found that people who spend at least 120 minutes in nature per week have higher odds of reporting better health and psychological well-being.
Researchers at the University of Exeter used data from almost 20,000 people in the UK who participated in a two-year survey funded by Natural England, which is the world's largest effort to collect data on people's weekly interactions with nature, according to The Guardian.
They found that people who spent two hours in nature were 23 percent more likely to report being satisfied with their life — a common well-being indicator — and were 59 percent more likely to report being in good health than those who had zero exposure to nature, Reuters reported.
Interestingly, the health benefits of getting at least 120 minutes of nature exposure each week persisted whether the threshold was met in one trip or multiple, and benefits increased for up to 300 minutes of exposure before plateauing. Additionally, the benefits seen after reaching 120 minutes applied widely to men and women of all ages, as well as across different ethnicities, socioeconomic status, and even those with long-term illnesses and disabilities.
"What really amazed us was that this was true for all groups of people," lead author Dr. Mathew White of the University of Exeter Medical School told The New York Times.
That said, people who did not get at least two hours in nature — even if they surpassed an hour per week — were not any more likely to say they were in good health than those who spent no time in natural spaces, White wrote in Quartz.
The researchers said the benefits could be tied to reduced stress from the tranquil setting or physical activities that are done outdoors, though the study wasn't designed to look for specific reasons why the benefits exist. White also noted in his Quartz article that because the data was self-reported, it was possible that participants might not have accurately remembered their time in nature during the previous week or might have gotten nervous speaking about their health and well-being.
The study is the latest addition to a compelling body of evidence that doctors should consider handing out nature prescriptions to their patients — in fact, many in the U.S. and UK are doing so already. In March, a large Danish study found that living near nature as a child could reduce a person's risk of mental illness as an adult. Other studies have revealed that the decades-old Japanese technique of "forest-bathing" has a range of health benefits, including lowering blood pressure, reduced disease risk and faster healing times.
The study didn't count time spent in a person's own yard or garden as time in nature, but the researchers said you don't need to completely escape civilization each week to benefit.
"The majority of nature visits in this research took place within just two miles of home so even visiting local urban greenspaces seems to be a good thing," Dr. White said in a press release. "Two hours a week is hopefully a realistic target for many people, especially given that it can be spread over an entire week to get the benefit.
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Clear-cutting a forest is relatively easy—just pick a tree and start chopping. But there are benefits to more sophisticated forest management. One technique—which involves repeatedly harvesting smaller trees every 30 or so years but leaving an upper story of larger trees for longer periods (60, 90, or 120 years)—ensures a steady supply of both firewood and construction timber.
A Pattern in the Rings<p>The <a href="https://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/coppice-standards-0" target="_blank">coppice-with-standards</a> management practice produces a two-story forest, said <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Bernhard_Muigg" target="_blank">Bernhard Muigg</a>, a dendrochronologist at the University of Freiburg in Germany. "You have an upper story of single trees that are allowed to grow for several understory generations."</p><p>That arrangement imprints a characteristic tree ring pattern in a forest's upper story trees (the "standards"): thick rings indicative of heavy growth, which show up at regular intervals as the surrounding smaller trees are cut down. "The trees are growing faster," said Muigg. "You can really see it with your naked eye."</p><p>Muigg and his collaborators characterized that <a href="https://ltrr.arizona.edu/about/treerings" target="_blank">dendrochronological pattern</a> in 161 oak trees growing in central Germany, one of the few remaining sites in Europe with actively managed coppice-with-standards forests. They found up to nine cycles of heavy growth in the trees, the oldest of which was planted in 1761. The researchers then turned to a historical data set — more than 2,000 oak <a href="https://eos.org/articles/podcast-discovering-europes-history-through-its-timbers" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">timbers from buildings and archaeological sites</a> in Germany and France dating from between 300 and 2015 — to look for a similar pattern.</p>
A Gap of 500 Years<p>The team found wood with the characteristic coppice-with-standards tree ring pattern dating to as early as the 6th century. That was a surprise, Muigg and his colleagues concluded, because the first mention of this forest management practice in historical documents occurred only roughly 500 years later, in the 13th century.</p><p>It's probable that forest management practices were not well documented prior to the High Middle Ages (1000–1250), the researchers suggested. "Forests are mainly mentioned in the context of royal hunting interests or donations," said Muigg. Dendrochronological studies are particularly important because they can reveal information not captured by a sparse historical record, he added.</p><p>These results were <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-78933-8" target="_blank">published in December in <em>Scientific Reports</em></a>.</p><p>"It's nice to see the longevity and the history of coppice-with-standards," said <a href="https://www.teagasc.ie/contact/staff-directory/s/ian-short/" target="_blank">Ian Short</a>, a forestry researcher at Teagasc, the Agriculture and Food Development Authority in Ireland, not involved in the research. This technique is valuable because it promotes conservation and habitat biodiversity, Short said. "In the next 10 or 20 years, I think we'll see more coppice-with-standards coming back into production."</p><p>In the future, Muigg and his collaborators hope to analyze a larger sample of historic timbers to trace how the coppice-with-standards practice spread throughout Europe. It will be interesting to understand where this technique originated and how it propagated, said Muigg, and there are plenty of old pieces of wood waiting to be analyzed. "There [are] tons of dendrochronological data."</p><p><em><a href="mailto:email@example.com" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Katherine Kornei</a> is a freelance science journalist covering Earth and space science. Her bylines frequently appear in Eos, Science, and The New York Times. Katherine holds a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of California, Los Angeles.</em></p><p><em>This story originally appeared in <a href="https://eos.org/articles/tree-rings-reveal-how-ancient-forests-were-managed" target="_blank">Eos</a></em> <em>and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.</em></p>
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