Six Hundred Seconds to a Better You

March 1, 2016, Department, by Jimmy O’Connor

Much has been said about people, particularly children, spending too much time in front of electronic screens and the negative health consequences associated with such activity. We are told to put down the remote, put away our smartphones, get off the couch and get outside. This suggestion, more often a call-to-action, is made with the proposition that the outdoors will make us healthier beings. And in fact, this can be true. Many studies have concluded that nature promotes health and wellness. Beginning with environmental psychologist Roger Ulrich’s 1984 study of hospital patients’ view of outdoor gardens and the positive correlation to reduced complaints of discomfort and shortened recovery time, the health benefits of nature have been demonstrated time after time. NRPA’s park prescription model of physician-prescribed outdoor recreation is built on the knowledge that an individual’s health and well-being can benefit from time spent outdoors.

But, how much time do we need to spend outdoors to benefit from it? And, is all time spent outdoors equal? Thanks to recent research by MaryCarol Hunter, associate professor of natural resources at the University of Michigan, we have insight into the answers to these questions. Studying the attributes that make an outdoor place more pleasing for human interaction, Hunter’s study, “Designer’s Approach for Scene Selection in Tests of Preference and Restoration Along a Continuum of Natural to Manmade Environments,” published in Frontiers in Psychology, August 19, 2015, draws findings important to parks and recreation, families and individuals alike.

How Much Time?

Ten minutes, two to three times per week: This is the amount of time in a natural setting necessary to trigger the healthy benefits associated with being outdoors. The research findings indicate that people who achieve this amount of outdoor time have less stress, increased ability to focus and improved mood and energy levels. This relatively modest investment of time is an opportunity to ensure participants within your recreation programs get outside. Many of your programs, for preschoolers to seniors, can include a walk through the park several times each week, snack served outside or reading time in the shade of a tree.

Just being outside isn’t necessarily enough. Generally, the benefits of time spent outdoors are more closely associated with natural surroundings rather than simply being outside. While Hunter’s study found that participants derived positive benefits from a variety of settings, from urban green space to private backyards, the specific outdoor features that are attributed to a beneficial response in health have yet to be defined. However, we do know that people respond more favorably to natural settings than highly urbanized and industrial settings. Components of a natural setting include multidimensional vegetation (plants of varying heights, density, color and texture), undulating topography (hills and rock outcrops), non-linear travel corridors (curved paths and streets) and water (fountains and ponds). While contemporary design in the urban/industrial setting is of a desirable palate to many and often includes or mimics natural materials, this more linear and unadorned style does not convey the same benefits as being within natural surroundings. 

Make the Time

We are conditioned to think of time spent outdoors as something that must be qualified, as though taking a walk through the park may not be enough. Hunter’s research shows that the benefits of being outdoors may be easier to achieve than previously thought. While this author is not about to suggest spending less time outdoors or diminish the importance of an association with nature, I hope you will find it as encouraging as I do to understand that spending as little as 10 minutes a few times a week in a natural setting is enough to start providing the benefits of being outdoors. Connecting to nature is absolutely necessary for our health and well-being and this research shows how easily this can be achieved. But, we need to make the time, for ourselves and others, to be outside — to be in nature. As Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder puts it, “Time in nature is not leisure time; it’s an essential investment in our children’s health (and also, by the way, in our own).” To frame the issue another way, Louv also writes, “Unlike television, nature does not steal time; it amplifies it.” 

I encourage you to build connections to nature across your agency. Look at every program and capital project as an opportunity to deliver a touch-point with the natural world. Those of us in parks and recreation have the places and people to make meaningful bonds with nature that will benefit individuals today and society tomorrow. All it might take is 10 minutes.

Jimmy O’Connor is NRPA’s Director of Conservation.