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April 04, 2019

A dose of nature is all the medicine you need when feeling stressed

'Nature pills,' or short periods spent in nature, have proven health benefits in just 20 minutes, study suggests

Wellness Stress
Stock_Carroll - Wissahickon Valley Park Hiking Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice

Hiking in the Wissahickon Valley Park, Tues. Oct. 17, 2017.

Most people feel better from whatever ails them — be it stress, anger or grief — when they’re able to step outside and get a breath of fresh air. Turns out, there’s research to back it’s stress-reducing efficacy.

While research has long alluded to the health benefits of time spent in nature, new research published Thursday in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, is the first to nail down the specifics — including time, frequency and nature quality — of the rewards of nature.

A team of researchers out of the University of Michigan have determined that one can reap the health benefits of nature in as short as a 20-minute walk, which they refer to as a “nature pill.”

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The goal of this research was to provide healthcare providers with the ability to prescribe research-backed “nature pills” knowing full-well that they have a measurable impact, the study’s press release on Medical Xpress explains. 

The study found that a 20- to 30-minute interaction with nature — from sitting to walking to a physical activity — can help decrease health problems and may even promote weight loss. 

To determine this precise window of nature-related health benefits, 36 study participants who all lived in cities were asked to take a nature break at least three times per week for at least 10 minutes each during the eight-week study period, the study explains.

Study participants provided a saliva sample before and after their time in nature at four increments throughout the period, which measured their cortisol levels, among other things. Participants’ cortisol levels decreased by an average of 21.3 percent per hour after their nature pill, the study authors concluded. 

They also noted finding that an hourly decrease of 28 percent in the alpha-amylase enzyme — which helps break down food — in participants who reported to be the least active.

Cortisol, the “stress hormone,” is an important measure in the study as a steroid hormone created in the adrenal glands that dispatches to cells all over the body and can affect different functions, according to the Hormone Health Network. Namely, cortisol can reduce inflammation, control blood sugar levels, help form memories and regulate the metabolism. 

While 20 to 30 minutes spent in nature was deemed by this study to be the ideal window for health benefits, researchers noted that “additional de-stressing benefits continue to add up, but at a slower rate” in longer periods spent in nature.

It’s worth noting that the researchers cite the benefits of a nature pill to relate to “a place that provides you with a sense of nature,”  Dr. MaryCarol Hunter, lead author of the research explained. So, for grid-locked city dwellers, neighborhood parks could do the trick — if that works for you. No need to go forest bathing unless, of course, you want to. 

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