Your Wellbeing’s Buy One, Get One Free
Dr. Oliver Sacks – the late neurologist, author and master communicator of the human condition – wrote in his last collection of essays: “In 40 years of medical practice, I have found only two types of non-pharmaceutical “therapy” to be vitally important for patients with chronic neurological diseases: music and gardens…In many cases, gardens and nature are more powerful than any medication.”
Living in greener cities is associated with better health: It lowers the risk of heart disease, obesity, diabetes, asthma, anxiety and early death. It’s even been shown that fewer kids need corrective glasses when there are more greenspaces in the neighborhood.
One can of course argue that higher socioeconomic status is usually related to the amount of open space, street trees, community gardens and green roofs around urban homes, but many studies that controlled for income and education found that the correlation stands.
Being close to nature gives you indirect advantages – you’re visually exposed to green things that grow even if you’re not actively walking in the park, and local trees clean the air that you breathe and reduce the noise that you hear.
While some people – and even more dog owners – frequent parks and nature trails, others do so rarely. Living close to green spaces makes it more likely that you’ll be exposed to the power of green and actually take advantage of the park. But nature seekers will be willing to travel far to see a garden or enjoy a nature reserve.
It’s the direct exposure that can tell us more about the power of nature to lift our wellbeing.
Effective green dose
A new study, published in Scientific Reports, focuses on direct exposure to nature. It looked at a nationally representative sample of 20,000 from England. Some of them live in greener places, some live in less green cities. The participants reported how often and for how long they visit nature and on their wellbeing. The study controlled for the amount of neighborhood greenspace or lack thereof, for air pollution, for physical activity, for physical disability that might interfere with the ability to seek the outdoors, and for socioeconomic status.
The nature minimum dose, according to this study is 2 hours per week. It doesn’t matter if you’re young or old, man or woman, whether it was divided into short visits or experienced all at once.
There was a dose response, and wellbeing peaked at 3-5 hours a week. But two hours are enough to make a difference.
This study suggests that just like there are now guidelines for weekly physical activity, there should be recommendation for nature activities.
Finding time to fit the minimum two and a half hours of physical activity and the two hours of nature into the week leads to an obvious solution: exercise while being outdoors. Walk, run, dig the garden soil, climb a hill, or a mountain.
Exercising in nature is a two-for-one.
Young kids and dogs erupt in exuberant joy when their little feet and paws touch real soil and birdsong fills their ears – they know what many of us have forgotten.
We’re all afflicted to some extent with a neurological condition: stress, mental overload, the challenges of being a mortal human.
We all need a garden. We could all use the perspective of a butterfly and a tree.