Getting Outside For Just 20 Minutes A Day Has A Huge Effect On Your Stress Levels

by Julie Scagell
Originally Published: 
Image via Getty Images/Halfpoint Images

Just twenty minutes a day can significantly reduce your stress

It’s not always easy getting outside. You’ve got work, kids, commitments — and if you live in a cold weather state you’re likely just waking up from a deep, two-year frigid-induced hibernation. Plus, there are people outside so, blech. But a new study finds that just 20 minutes a day in nature can help alleviate some of the stress all of the above creates.

The paper, published by Frontiers in Psychology, reviewed the research compiled after sending 36 urban dwellers outside for a Nature Experience (NE), defined as “spending time in an outdoor place that brings a sense of contact with nature.” Folks had to spend ten minutes outside at least three times a week for eight weeks and then tested their participants’ cortisol levels to see whether this time spent outdoors made a difference to their stress levels.

“We know that spending time in nature reduces stress, but until now it was unclear how much is enough, how often to do it, or even what kind of nature experience will benefit us,” the study’s lead author, Dr. MaryCarol Hunter, told Science Daily. “Our study shows that for the greatest payoff, in terms of efficiently lowering levels of the stress hormone cortisol, you should spend 20 to 30 minutes sitting or walking in a place that provides you with a sense of nature.”

Obviously, it doesn’t take a study to know that being outdoors can lift your mood, especially when it’s sunny (hello Vitamin D). But this is the first time that duration, frequency, and nature quality were measured as they relate to stress hormones.

“Participants were free to choose the time of day, duration, and the place of their nature experience, which was defined as anywhere outside that in the opinion of the participant, made them feel like they’ve interacted with nature,” Hunter said. “There were a few constraints to minimize factors known to influence stress: take the nature pill in daylight, no aerobic exercise, and avoid the use of social media, internet, phone calls, conversations and reading.”

The data also revealed that just 20 minutes outdoors was enough to significantly reduce cortisol levels, and 20-30 minutes in nature dropped them to their lowest rates.

Anyone who has experienced depression, PPD, or anxiety knows how hard it can be to even get off the couch, let alone motivate yourself to take a walk in the sunshine. But with the diagnoses of major depressive disorder steadily on the rise since 2013, affecting over nine million Americans, most significantly teens, being one with nature is needed now more than ever.

“Healthcare practitioners can use our results as an evidence-based rule of thumb on what to put in a nature-pill prescription,” says Hunter. “It provides the first estimates of how nature experiences impact stress levels in the context of normal daily life. It breaks new ground by addressing some of the complexities of measuring an effective nature dose.”

The ultimate goal of the study? To communicate a “nature prescription” that healthcare providers can use with patients to provide a “preventive, self-administered health care treatment for mental well-being that is low in cost and effective in everyday settings.”

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