Editor’s note: This article was updated on March 27, 2020, to reflect information about COVID-19. Please consult the CDC or your state health department for advice related to the COVID-19 pandemic, including information on symptoms, testing and how to protect yourself and others during social distancing. Follow local guidelines regarding outdoor exercise and check access to local, state and national parks before you visit. Remember that recreation has inherent risks; don’t attempt activities beyond your experience and skill level. Your actions may present risk not only to you, but to your local community during these challenging times.
We know time outside is good for us: Nature can help reduce anxiety, promote creativity and contribute to heart health. But during the current global health crisis, mandates to stay at home are in effect in at least 23 states and parks are restricting access to reinforce social distancing, which means that nature fix can feel more elusive than ever.
Health officials and outdoor organizations are strongly discouraging people from traveling to recreation spots and are instead currently promoting social distancing and recommending recreationists set conservative goals in light of COVID-19.
But research shows that time outside doesn’t have to mean white-knuckling your way down a mountain bike track or scaling a sawtoothed peak. In fact, there are plenty of benefits to recreating close to home—and the rewards begin accruing at 120 minutes a week, according to a 2019 study published in Nature. That’s just two hours every week, with benefits appearing to max out between 200 and 300 minutes.
Better still, the researchers found it didn’t matter how people spent the 120 minutes—the quota could be met in a single session outdoors or during several shorter ones. Both green spaces in cities and green spaces in less urban places had a positive impact on the 19,000 healthy British adults who participated in the study.
Study participants were encouraged to get the 120 minutes however they liked. Some took daily 20-minute walks or went to the park. Others spent the better part of a Saturday hiking. Across the board, all of these participants reported improved well-being overall.
Study author and researcher Dr. Ian Alcock and his co-authors looked at the National Environment Survey, analyzing the data in one-hour periods and comparing how people felt after being outside after each additional hour in the outdoors.
Participants were much more likely to report good health and high well-being once they surpassed the 120-minute mark. (In fact, those who spent between one and 119 minutes outside per week reported the same amount of well-being as people who spent no time outdoors at all.) Benefits seemed to peak at between three to five hours, with no additional gain from more hours outside. This was true for people of all ages, including older adults and people with long-term health issues.
Alcock says we can’t speculate too much more about the results, though. Researchers still need to look at what this “well-being” factor means. In the future, they hope to use data collection that doesn’t rely on self-report methods, as people’s own assessments of their feelings and behaviors are often less reliable than objective measures.
And there are lingering questions: Would these same results show up if the study were conducted in the U.S.? Does the safety of green spaces matter? And do our feelings about spending time outdoors—our nervousness or excitement—impact the benefit we get from those 120 to 300 minutes? All of these questions could be subject to future research.
Still, we can take this first study as a powerful reason to get outside when we can, even if it’s just to put some plants in the ground, watch the birds from our front stoop or take an evening walk in a quiet corner of the city.