Did you know that taking at least twenty mins out of your day to be in contact with nature, whether that be taking a stroll or just sitting outside could significantly lower your stress hormone levels? A new study has established for the first time the most effective dose of an urban nature experience. Published in Frontiers in Psychology, healthcare practitioners can use this discovery to prescribe ‘nature pills’ in the knowledge that they have a real measurable effect.
“We know that spending time in nature reduces stress, but until now it was unclear how much is enough, how often to do it, or even what kind of nature experience will benefit us,” says Dr. MaryCarol Hunter, an Associate Professor at the University of Michigan and lead author of this research. “Our study shows that for the greatest payoff, in terms of efficiently lowering levels of the stress hormone cortisol, you should spend 20 to 30 minutes sitting or walking in a place that provides you with a sense of nature.”
These ‘nature pills’ could be a low-cost solution to lower the negative health impacts resulting from indoor lifestyles controlled by screen viewing and from growing urbanization. Hunter and her colleagues designed an experiment to assist healthcare practitioners looking for evidence-based guidelines, providing a realistic estimate of an effective dose.
Participants were asked to take a ‘nature pill’ with a duration of 10 minutes or more, at least 3 times a week, for 8 weeks. Levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, was then measured once every two weeks from saliva samples which were collected before and after taking a nature pill.
According to the Hunter, participants were able to choose the time of day, duration, and the place of their nature experience as long as that place was outside and made them feel like they’ve interacted with nature. There were some constraints to minimize factors know to increase stress including no aerobic exercise, participants were to take the nature pill in the daylight, and were asked to avoid the use of social media and internet, along with no phone calls, conversations and reading.
“We accommodated day to day differences in a participant’s stress status by collecting four snapshots of cortisol change due to a nature pill,” says Hunter. “It also allowed us to identify and account for the impact of the ongoing, natural drop in cortisol level as the day goes on, making the estimate of effective duration more reliable.”
The data revealed that just a twenty-minute nature experience was enough to significantly reduce cortisol levels. But if you spent a little more time immersed in a nature experience, 20 to 30 minutes sitting or walking, cortisol levels dropped at their greatest rate. After that, additional de-stressing benefits continue to add up but at a slower rate.
Hunter hopes this study will form the basis of further research in this area.
“Our experimental approach can be used as a tool to assess how age, gender, seasonality, physical ability and culture influences the effectiveness of nature experiences on well-being. This will allow customized nature pill prescriptions, as well as a deeper insight on how to design cities and wellbeing programs for the public.”
So if you are feeling a bit stressed, try stepping outside for a while to be one with nature. You might be surprised how quickly you start to feel at peace.