Can the outdoors help our health? WWF’s Elisabeth George reflects on nature and well-being

Green cliffs with a waterfall

In today’s fast-paced world, it can be easy to become overwhelmed with work, school, financial, and family responsibilities. We spend hours in front of screens and while three years have elapsed since the COVID-19 pandemic began, many of us still struggle to pick up the pieces. We may find ourselves with less time and more stress, and feel pressure to be “connected” 24/7. If that constant digital connection requires us to be seated indoors at a desk, it can perpetuate a feeling of being stagnant or stuck. 

Luckily, there is an antidote, and it is all around us. Nature.  

Nature in any form, be it trees, bodies of water, or plants and animals, can enhance our lives in many ways. The sheer sights and sounds of nature provide refuge from our often-overstimulating digital world. The shocking red feathers of a cardinal, the rhythmic lapping of waves against a shoreline, the crisp smell of autumn air. Chances are even just these descriptions of nature conjure a calm feeling in your mind’s eye.

Our individual connections with nature may be as varied as nature itself. Whether you prefer to notice the most microscopic of ecosystems, such as ants hard at work on a mossy log, or feel your smallness relative to gigantic mountain ranges, nature truly has something for everyone. Nature’s infinite promise allows us to find something different each time we are in its presence.

Beyond nature’s poetic symbolism or catalyzing effect on creativity, spending time in nature can have a real and lasting effect on our health and well-being.  In fact, there is increasing scientific evidence that points to nature’s positive effect on our health. A 2019 review of research from the University of Washington revealed that contact with nature is associated with increased well-being and happiness.1 Specifically, studies link nature exposure with a sense of meaning and purpose, improved manageability of life tasks, and a decrease in mental distress.   

Time spent in nature can affect our physical health, too. Evidence points to positive associations between nature and improved blood pressure, heart rate, and physical activity.2 Experimental research has even shown positive cognitive benefits associated with spending time in nature.3 And in March 2022, WWF released a report specific to the impact of forests on human health. 

The report looks at five categories of health, including noncommunicable diseases like cancer and diabetes, environmental exposure, food and nutrition, physical hazards, and infectious diseases. The evidence clearly demonstrates the positive impact forests have on human health. In short, they provide, prevent, and heal.

Considering the numerous health benefits that nature offers, it is critical to note that that not everyone has equal access to nature. A 2020 analysis indicates that residents of low-income communities, communities of color, and families with children have less access to nature.4 Solutions require creative collaboration between government, local community groups, and the private sector to ensure that the benefits of nature can be enjoyed by many, not just a select few. 

Perhaps the best news is that you don’t need to rearrange your entire life’s schedule to reap the benefits of nature. A recent UK study shows that two hours a week is all you need to improve your health and well-being.5 Most notably, this study examined a diverse group of 20,000 people from a range of ethnicities, health conditions, and occupations. The key takeaway is that no matter the circumstances of your life, two hours of nature per week can benefit everyone.      

So, whether you spend those two hours hiking through the woods, sitting on a riverbank, gardening, or enjoying your lunch in a tree-lined city park, nature’s offering is waiting.  

Elisabeth George is a communications specialist at WWF.

[1]Nature and mental health: An ecosystem service perspective, Science Advances, 24 July 2019
[2]Associations between Nature Exposure and Health: A Review of the Evidence, International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 20 April 2021
[3]Understanding Nature and Its Cognitive Benefits, Association for Psychological Science, 24 June 2019
[4]Confronting Racial and Economic Disparities in the Destruction and Protection of Nature in America, Center for American Progress, 21 July 2020
[5]Spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature is associated with good health and wellbeing, Scientific Reports, 13 June 2019