THE DETAILS: Professor Jules Pretty and colleagues at the University of Essex in the UK analyzed findings from 10 separate studies that measured self-esteem and mood after people engaged in "green exercise": cycling, walking, running, gardening, farming, and water-based activities like fishing or sailing. In each of the studies, participants' self-esteem and mood were measured before and after the activities using a standard psychological test. The Essex researchers also assessed study variables such as exposure time outdoors, exercise intensity, type of green space (urban parks, rural setting, forest, and so forth), as well as subjects’ age and mental-health status.
Regardless of what they were doing or where they were doing it, all subjects saw improvements in self-esteem and mood after exercising outdoors. People saw the greatest self-esteem changes while doing light-intensity exercise and after being outside for just five minutes. The biggest mood changes occurred after light- and vigorous-intensity workouts—also after just five minutes. (Note: Self-esteem and mood continued to improve with longer workouts, but the changes were greatest after five minutes.) Around water seemed the most uplifting places to exercise, and while all age groups saw mood and self-esteem boosts, people between the ages of 30 and 50 experienced the greatest lift.
WHAT IT MEANS: "For 300,000 generations, humans were hunter-gatherers and farmers,” says Pretty. “Yet for the last six to eight generations, we have been living in an increasingly industrialized world. The disconnection from nature is deeply felt." Which is why a mere five minutes of nature can have such a profound impact, he says. "That small amount of time makes more sense when you see it in the context of where people are coming from—stepping outside from a stressful day, for example," he says. In many cases, the effect can be almost immediate; your mood lifts as if by magic.
Importantly, studies like this help scientists and health professionals persuade policy makers to provide more funding for green spaces. This way, nature can be used as health care, Pretty says. But don't wait for the slow wheels of bureaucracy to provide outdoor escape. It’s there already.
Here are a few ways to sneak more nature into your life:
• Organize regular "moving meetings." Every cubicle-dwelling office worker yearns for a few minutes outside on a beautiful day. No problem. Replacing conventional sit-down meetings with outdoor walk-and-talks provides workers with light-intensity exercise (the most beneficial type in this study), and a change of scenery. Inevitable result: less stress, more creativity. (Watch our moving meeting video for tips on organizing them.)
• Grab your walking shoes—not a cup of coffee. As this study showed, it doesn't take much time to boost your mood. When the day starts to wear on you and you need a break—or even before this happens!—head outside and walk around your office building for five minutes rather than trudging to the cafeteria for a coffee or snack.
• Get a laptop. Ask your boss for one, then try to schedule some work outside each day. Many cities are now installing free Wi-Fi in parks (contact your local parks department to check if it's offered on your area), making them natural escapes from cubicles and offices. If you don't need an Internet connection, it’s easier still to find a sunny spot for some outside work time.
• Take up kayaking. Since water activities may lead to the biggest boost in mood and self-esteem, experiment this summer with an activity you've never tried, whether it's kayaking, sailing, canoeing, fishing, or even sculling.
• Volunteer. National, state, and local parks, as well as nonprofits, are always looking for volunteers to help clean up forests, trails, and rivers. Contact your local chapter of the Waterkeeper Alliance or Sierra Club, or find another local group that gets volunteers outdoors to help out.