Summary: Spending as little as ten minutes in a natural setting can help people feel happier and decrease the effects of both physical and mental stress.
Source: Cornell University
New research from an interdisciplinary Cornell team has found that as little as 10 minutes in a natural setting can help college students feel happier and lessen the effects of both physical and mental stress.
The research, published Jan. 14 in Frontiers in Psychology, is part of a larger examination of “nature therapy” and aims to provide an easily-achievable dosage that physicians can prescribe as a preventive measure against high levels of stress, anxiety, depression and other mental health issues college students face.
“It doesn’t take much time for the positive benefits to kick in — we’re talking 10 minutes outside in a space with nature,” said lead author Gen Meredith, associate director of the Master of Public Health Program and lecturer at the College of Veterinary Medicine. “We firmly believe that every student, no matter what subject or how high their workload, has that much discretionary time each day, or at least a few times per week.”
Meredith and her co-authors reviewed studies that examined the effects of nature on people of college age (no younger than 15, no older than 30) to discover how much time students should be spending outside and what they should be doing while they’re there. They found that 10-50 minutes in natural spaces was the most effective to improve mood, focus and physiological markers like blood pressure and heart rate.
“It’s not that there’s a decline after 50 minutes, but rather that the physiological and self-reported psychological benefits tend to plateau after that,” said co-author Donald Rakow, associate professor in the School of Integrative Plant Science.
To enjoy the positive effects of being outside, students need only to be sitting or walking, the two primary activities the researchers examined in an effort to provide accessible recommendations.
“We wanted to keep this access to nature as simple and achievable as possible,” says Rakow. “While there is a lot of literature on longer outdoor programs, we wanted to quantify doses in minutes, not days.”
For Cornell students, there are a multitude of options for escaping into nature. For urban universities, research suggests that adding green elements to a built space can produce the same results. It is the time spent in nature, not necessarily nature itself, that’s beneficial.
“This is an opportunity to challenge our thinking around what nature can be,” says Meredith. “It is really all around us: trees, a planter with flowers, a grassy quad or a wooded area.”
The impetus for this work is a movement toward prescribing time in nature as a way to prevent or improve stress and anxiety, while also supporting physical and mental health outcomes. The researchers wanted to consider what “dose” would need to be prescribed to college-age students to show an effect. They are hoping that when it’s applied at universities, it becomes part of a student’s routine and is consumed in regular doses, like a pill.
“Prescribing a dose can legitimize the physician’s recommendation and give a tangible goal” says Meredith. “It’s different than just saying: ‘Go outside.’ There is something specific that a student can aim for.”
Meredith and Rakow’s co-authors include Erin Eldermire, head librarian at the Flower-Sprecher Veterinary Library; Cecelia Madsen ’12, M.P.H. ’19; Steven Shelley, M.P.H. ’19, epidemiologist at the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention; and Naomi Sachs, assistant professor at the University of Maryland.
About this neuroscience research article
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Minimum Time Dose in Nature to Positively Impact the Mental Health of College-Aged Students, and How to Measure It: A Scoping Review
Background: Across the U.S., college and university students exhibit high levels of stress, anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues. While counseling, medications and, in more severe cases, hospitalization are all appropriate treatments for such conditions, an increasing body of evidence has demonstrated that spending time in nature can provide tangible benefits for mental health and well-being. The aim of this study was to define a “dose” of time in nature that could be prescribed to college-age students, as a preventative and supportive mental health and well-being intervention. The specific objectives of this scoping review were thus: to define the minimum amount of time in nature that results in positive impact on mental health and well-being for college-aged students; to describe the types of engagement with nature that elicited the impact; and to describe and explore the most commonly used measure of effect pre- and post-time in nature.
Methods: This scoping review was conducted following the PRISMA-ScR Checklist. A review protocol was developed but not registered. Fourteen bibliographic databases were searched and all results were blindly screened using established inclusion criteria. All titles and abstracts were screened by at least two reviewers, a third being used as a tie-breaker if needed. Studies were included if: subjects were of average college age; they examined a treatment of time (hours or minutes) in nature; they examined change in measures of mental health and well-being pre- and post-exposure; they compared participants across at least two environments; the study was published in English or French; and if the study was <20 years old.
Results: Initially, 11,799 titles were identified and once de-duplicated, 10,917 titles were screened. One hundred fifty-five papers were given full text reviews, of which 14 studies were included in this review. In summary, 13 of the 14 papers explicitly noted that the participants were college students. Two-thirds of the studies (n = 10) took place in Japan. One study took place in Sweden, and the remaining studies took place in the United States (n = 3). These studies show that, when contrasted with equal durations spent in urbanized settings, as little as 10 min of sitting or walking in a diverse array of natural settings significantly and positively impacted defined psychological and physiological markers of mental well-being for college-aged individuals. Within the included studies, 22 different measures were used to assess the effects of nature doses on mental health and well-being.
Conclusions: This review provides time-dose and activity-type evidence for programs looking to use time in nature as a preventative measure for stress and mental health strain, and also demonstrates opportunities in six specific foci for more research in this area.