If you are in a place impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, spending 20 minutes experiencing nature in a park, street, or even your backyard can significantly reduce your stress levels. Just be sure to follow federal, state, and local guidelines and maintain social distancing of 6 feet. But even if you cannot or are unable to go outside, taking a break by opening a window and looking at a tree or plant can also help de-stress.
After years of research, Dr. MaryCarol Hunter, ASLA — a landscape architect, ecologist, and professor at the University of Michigan — can state with confidence that just 20 minutes of experiencing nature has major benefits. Her findings, which were widely covered in the media last year, were published in the Frontiers of Psychology.
The Coronavirus pandemic — and all the financial, social, and emotional havoc it has wrecked — has only increased stress worldwide. “People are stuck inside, freaked out, and the news doesn’t get any better,” Hunter told me.
She explained that there are a few good ways to stop “ruminating and concentrating on bad stuff.” One way is to exercise. Another is to experience nature, which offers a “great way to take you away from whatever is on your mind.”
She recommended walking or sitting or looking closely at a tree, plant, bug, or animal. “Get rid of your tech — your smart phone — and actively pay attention to something in nature. The experience of nature is what is key. The intentional focus gets you the stress reduction faster.”
Everyone’s experience of nature may be different. It can be experienced on a trail or street, in a park or plaza, within a backyard, on a patio with some plants, or out a window. “You can also close your eyes and listen to birds or insects.”
Parks are particularly important though, because it is also a way to see other people from a safe distance. These green spaces have few metal or plastic surfaces where viruses can lurk.
As the pandemic hits New York City, the NYC parks and recreation department has made a point of keeping city parks open.
Mitchell J. Silver, NYC parks commissioner told The New York Times there are no current plans to close the parks. “I’m optimistic. It’s critically important to get fresh air, it builds the immune system. People are out using parks. Twenty minutes in the park reduces stress, anxiety. You see people doing that today, given the times we’re in.”
Hunter reiterated a point Silver made: that spending time in nature is critical to boosting our immune system, which is essential to staving off health problems. A study by University of Illinois researcher Ming Kuo showed that “good immune system function is linked to resilience.” Hunter added that nature also helps improve cognitive function — our ability to pay attention, which is so important given everything going on.
Hunter’s study had such an impact because it was the first nature-focused one to sample the cortisol levels of relatively large numbers of subjects repeatedly over long stretches of time. 37 subjects were tested three times a week over 8 weeks. “The repeated testing of each person gave a realistic assessment of the stress reduction capacity of a ‘nature pill’ under the conditions of daily life.”
In Ann Arbor, Michigan, over the summer, Hunter’s subjects were given a wide berth in defining and finding their own nature experiences. For some, it was taking a walk in the park; for others it was sitting under a tree. “The only criteria was that they felt a connection with nature — that’s it.”
She gave her subjects an app, which prompted them to go outside. Many of her subjects, which had considered themselves avid outdoors people, were dismayed discover they weren’t going outside as much as they had thought. The app also enabled them to take photographs of whatever nature they experienced that moved them.
Examining cortisol levels in the saliva samples, Hunter and her researchers sought to figure out “the magic point” at which experiencing nature starts to relax people. She found that 20 minutes registered a significant reduction in stress. From 20-30 minutes, people are experiencing the “greatest efficiency in stress reduction, the biggest bang for the buck,” so to speak. After 40 minutes, there is continued stress relief but at slower rates.
Hunter said she gets one question a lot: “What if I don’t have 20 minutes?” Her answer: Even if you don’t have that amount of time at once, taking smaller breaks of 5-10 minutes helps, too.
The pandemic shows how important it is to embed nature wherever possible along streets and in pocket parks, plazas, and courtyards. Those nearby-nature experiences become more critical given people’s increasing time constraints and restrictions in traveling to big urban parks or nature preserves.
Hunter’s research was sponsored by the TKF Foundation. Learn more about their investments in scientific evidence demonstrating the health benefits of nature.