UW's Nature and Health Group Talks Time Outside
What researchers are discovering about how and why being outside is so good for us.
Time spent in nature is good for you. Whether you’ve known that consciously or not, it’s likely that the physical and mental benefits have played a role in why you get outside and hike. But there are plenty of questions about how much time or what type of nature gives people the greatest benefits. Thankfully, there is Nature and Health, an entire group of professors and students at the University of Washington dedicated to exploring these connections. WTA has been attending events and meetings with Nature and Health for several years, even presenting with GirlTrek and the U.S. Forest Service to other member organizations about our joint research. We talked with Josh Lawler, Nature and Health director and Denman Professor of Sustainable Resource Sciences, one of the group’s key organizers, to find out more about the group’s work and findings.
How did this group at the University of Washington come to be?
Nature and Health is a group of researchers, practitioners, and policy makers—all interested in the positive health effects of time spent in nature. We work together to build our understanding of the linkages between nature contact and health and use it to develop better programs, policies and practices to improve health and conserve nature for all people.
We began when a small group of UW researchers and members of the broader community got together to talk about how time spent in nature could positively affect health and what the implications of those effects are for urban planning, outdoor programs, school design, and myriad other plans, programs, and policies. We continued to meet at a local brew pub, meeting every few months to share research findings, program plans, and policy ideas informally over dinner. Our convenings continued to grow into what is today a community of over 360 people.
What have you learned that you think could help people in their day-to-day life?
There is strong evidence that nature contact can positively affect mental and physical health as well as general well-being. For example, studies have found nature experiences to reduce stress, anxiety, ADHD symptoms, obesity, aggression, blood pressure, depression, and mortality as well as to improve birth outcomes, sleep, immune function, eyesight, and life satisfaction. Even relatively little time spent in nature—just 120 minutes per week—has been found to have positive health effects. We are also learning how these benefits are distributed. Both access to nature and the benefits of that access are not equitably distributed due to historical and ongoing systemic racism that has resulted in segregation practices such as redlining.
We’ll stress that although there is a growing body of evidence for all of these things, there are still many things we need to know to better understand how to best take advantage of the health benefits of time spent in nature. For example, we need a better understanding of the mechanisms through which nature experiences affect changes in the mind and the body as well as what aspects of nature have the largest effects and how those effects may vary across people.
What have you learned that you think could help guide public policy?
Our group is specifically learning about how outdoor preschools affect mental and physical health, about how outdoor programs can be used as treatment for veterans with PTSD, and about how greening schoolyards can affect the health in a community. All of these studies have implications for policies surrounding education, health care, and urban planning. The more general findings in the field have implications for an even wider array of policies that include recreation programs, health insurance plans, school curricula, park design, and therapy practices.
What has been the most surprising thing you’ve learned?
I think the most surprising thing that I have learned is how little time one has to spend in nature to get some benefit. As I mentioned above, a recent study out of Britain found that as little as 120 minutes per week produced positive health benefits. I also think that the breadth of positive health effects is also rather shocking—it is even broader than those I listed earlier.
What questions are you most excited to look into next?
We are really excited about learning more about the mechanisms that drive these health effects. How do experiences with nature get translated into changes in the mind and body? We are also interested in learning how different types of experience and different natural environments affect the health benefits provided. There is also a great need to learn more about how health benefits vary across populations.
What has your research found about the roles trails play in health?
Perhaps most simply—and this doesn’t come from our research—trails help facilitate interactions with nature. They are particularly important for generating many of the physical health benefits from time spent in nature. Trails also play an important role in what Peter Kahn, professor of Psychology at UW and Nature and Health researcher, calls interaction patterns—specific ways that people interact with the natural environment. Spencer Wood, Nature and Health and eSciences researcher at UW, and team have found that trail use has been steadily increasing for decades, regionwide. More recently, trail use increased by about 75%, from 2015-2019 at sites in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. The rise was even greater in 2020, although the exact numbers aren’t in yet.
What have you been learning since the pandemic began?
More and more people are seeking connection with nature. A recent study that looked at Google searches found that the number of searches for “go for a walk” skyrocketed starting in March of 2020. Nature is likely to prove to be particularly important for mental health over the course of the pandemic. Nature exposure has the potential to be helpful for overstressed health care workers as well. The University of Washington is working to put plants in breakrooms for healthcare workers and other hospitals have healing gardens and other green spaces for patients and staff. The pandemic has also emphasized the racial and economic inequities in access to nature.