Scientists believe that the great outdoors has a positive effect on a person's mental state and physical health, with many studies suggesting a link between time spent in nature and reduced stress, improved concentration, faster recovery time and even a stronger immune system.
So just how long should we be spending outside to feel the benefits? An English study published in June 2019 in the journal Scientific Reports found that people who spent at least two hours in nature a week were happier and healthier than those who didn't.
Doesn't sound like much, does it? But with our busy lives and the fact that many of us live in cities — in fact, the World Health Organization predicts that 60 percent of the world's population will live in urban areas by 2030 — finding the time to get outdoors has never been more challenging.
"The more time we spend in nature, being part of nature, being curious about it and taking care of it, the more it will be become part of our lives," Eva Selhub, MD, physician, resilience expert and author of Your Brain on Nature, tells LIVESTRONG.com. "That has many effects on our immune system, brain function and our ability to feel well and alert."
In short: Making time for Mother Nature is worth it. With that in mind, here are seven creative ideas for getting more outdoors time.
1. Map Your Go-to Nature Spots
First, find the nearest green space or body of water to your home (or workplace). Make it a goal to visit that spot once a day, even if it's just for a few minutes.
Or, if you want a change of scenery, try mapping out the closest half dozen nature spots and pledging to visit a new one every month.
Remember, spending time in nature doesn't mean you have to seek out a forest. There are myriad options when it comes to green space, including National Parks, nature preserves, botanical gardens, arboretums, rivers, lakes and beaches. Use the National Parks Service, Recreation.gov and the U.S. Forest Service to find your most easy accessible spots and build them into weekend trips, short breaks and vacations.
2. Put It in Your Calendar
Schedule your nature time each week, just like any other healthy habit. Two hours a week is a little less than 20 minutes a day, which is easily achievable on your lunch break, after work or in between your weekend commitments.
Can't fit it in during the week? Good news: The Scientific Reports study researchers found that it didn't matter if participants got their two hours in one long session or multiple short sessions.
"We know that exercising outdoors is easier. People report less pain, less fatigue and they're able to go longer and faster."
3. Change Up Your Commute
Commuting through a natural environment can boost your mental health, according to a December 2018 study in the journal Environment International.
If you currently drive, consider walking, running or biking to work, or simply leaving earlier so you can take a more scenic route. If you take public transit get off a stop earlier and walk through a park or next to the water.
4. Try Forest Therapy
Forest therapy is an increasingly popular group activity where participants go into a natural environment with a guide. Based in part on Shinrin-yoku, the Japanese art of forest bathing, participants explore nature using mindfulness tools and rituals.
Oskar and Nicole Elmgart, certified forest therapists and founders of Treebath, who run outdoor programs for all ages in New York City, describe a forest therapy session as "a mindful experience in the woods in which you use your senses to get some mental clarity, relax and be more present in nature."
The Elmgarts say participants report feeling increased wellbeing and happiness, as well as more connected to nature. Which can only be a good thing.
"The point of forest therapy — the way we teach it — is to cultivate a deep relationship between humans and places," says Ben Page, director of training at the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy (ANFT), which offers certification programs for forest therapists. "Part of this relationship is based in this idea of reciprocity. It's not just about human health — this is about cultivating a relationship that yields health benefits for both humans and ecological spaces."
Read more: What is Forest Bathing and How Do You Do It?
5. Take Your Workout Outside Once a Week
Switch things up by walking, running or otherwise exercising outdoors.
Besides the added health benefits, there's an added bonus to this advice: "We know that exercising outdoors is easier," says Dr. Selhub. "People report less pain, less fatigue and they're able to go longer and faster."
Pro tip: Be sure to plan for weather extremes like cold and heat, and choose the right workout gear when you do.
6. Grow Your Own
Caring for a garden, vegetables or houseplants isn't just on trend, it's also good for you.
Indeed, in addition to getting you out in the open, gardening has a positive effect on a range of health and wellbeing measures, according to a meta-analysis published in March 2017 in the journal Preventative Medicine Reports.
7. Bring the Outside In
Dr. Selhub suggests using the sounds, sights and smells of nature to increase your wellbeing, even when you are inside.
- Listen to a guided meditation that takes you on a journey into a natural setting, or check out the National Park Sounds app, which includes recordings of soundscapes from National Parks like Sequoia and Yosemite.
- Bring the scent of fresh-cut flowers into your home, or use aromatherapy oils derived from plants and trees.
- Watch a nature documentary or queue up one of the many Youtube videos of walking trails from across the world. Although nearly 20 years old, a much-lauded 1991 study in the Journal of Environmental Psychology revealed that people recover more quickly from a stressful incident when shown videos of natural environments compared to urban ones.
Is This an Emergency?
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Sour mood getting you down? Get back to nature"
- Frontiers in Psychology: “How might contact with nature promote human health? Promising mechanisms and a possible central pathway”
- Scientific Reports: “Spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature is associated with good health and wellbeing”
- International Journal of Environmental Research and Human Health: “Psychological Benefits of Walking Through Forest Areas”
- Environment International: “Active commuting through natural environments is associated with better mental health: Results from the PHENOTYPE project”
- World Health Organization: "Global Health Observatory Data"
- Preventative Medicine Reports: “Gardening is beneficial for health: A meta-analysis”
- Psychological Science: “The Cognitive Benefits of Interacting With Nature”
- The Mayo Clinic: "Winter fitness: Safety tips for exercising outdoors"
- The Cleveland Clinic: "Why Forest Therapy Can Be Good for Your Body and Mind"