Feb 5th, 2020

Outdoor Recreation May Increase Your Happiness

Long days enjoyed in the great outdoors is history for most Americans. Today, the average adult spends 93 percent of his life inside. He also devotes ten hours a day to screen time on computers, phones and digital games.

Is it a coincidence that one in five adults suffers from a major mental illness, and 40 million live with anxiety? Is there a connection between nature deficiency and the 2 million children who struggle with attention deficit disorder, as well as the 15 percent diagnosed with a mental health disorder?

Woman tabling at the College of William & Mary for students to get outdoors more for outdoor recreation.

During a Campus Park Rx consultation, Colleen Norton ’21, a research assistant at the Parks Research Lab (PRL) at William & Mary, uses a special database of local parks to refer fellow students to the best outdoor spaces for their interests, needs, transportation options and schedule. The Campus Park Rx program, along with other PRL programs, is designed to enhance health and wellbeing on campus by helping students spend more time outdoors in local greenspace.

There is a direct connection between nature-time and mental health, according to Dr. Dorothy Ibes, director of William & Mary’s Parks Research Lab, and Carolyn Schuyler, Harvard graduate and founder of Wildrock, a nonprofit nature center in Albemarle County. They shared these statistics and their recommendations during an eco-therapy presentation at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden in December.

Both Schuyler and Ibes are quick to emphasize that nature deficiency is not the only cause of mental disorders. However, it is a proven contributor, based on extensive research. The two informally partnered several years ago to promote nature interaction for enhanced mental, as well as physical and emotional, wellbeing.

Warning! Outdoor Recreation May Increase Your Happiness

“Studies show that within five minutes of being outside, stress reduces through interplay of humans and the natural world,” said Schuyler, who is a licensed clinical social worker.

Enjoying nature and outdoor recreation energizes people, reduces stress and enhances cognitive abilities. It also supports a positive reset and serves as a protective buffer once indoor activities are resumed.

At least 120 minutes per week of nature-time is their recommendation. However, even 20 seconds outdoors, called a “green micro-break,” can help release pent up stress and emotion.

“Micro-moments outdoors are the building blocks of mental health,” Schuyler said. “It’s not just pleasure. It’s like medicine.”

The Nature-effect on College Campuses

Depression and suicide have increased among young adults. Reasons are many, but digital and technology addictions continue to replace human connections at an alarming rate. Stress has become a badge of honor at universities. Demands are high, and anxiety a way of life. Many do not realize their need for help.

Ibes, who also is a senior lecturer and published researcher, described the Campus Park Rx on the William & Mary campus. Branded as a prescription for wellbeing, the greenspace supports digital detox through signage at designated nature stops. The wooded nature trail acts as an informal mental-health intervention. Local healthcare professionals and students are trained as park ambassadors who help visitors maximize, as well as justify, time spent there. This simplified form of ecotherapy encourages visitors to slow down and appreciate nature’s sounds, smells, sights and tactile stimuli. The process supports self-care.

“People, especially students, are hungry for a nature connection,” Ibes said. “We want it, need it, respond to it.”

Youngsters Need Nature, Too

Schuyler focuses on how the nature disconnection affects children. She said children are 55 percent less likely to develop mental health disorders later in life if they grow up in greener surroundings.

Wildrock, which is open seasonally to the public by donation, provides wide-open spaces for children to run, play and explore.

“Play is the work of a child,” Schuyler said. “Free play creates a learning-ready state in the brain.”

Nature play builds emotional resilience. A dose of nature also enhances stewardship within the next generation.

“So many kids are nature-disconnected,” Schuyler said. “Wildrock is a planned space to scaffold nature connection. We delight in the family bonding that takes place, too.

“We have a public health crisis, but we also have nature as a public health resource.”


Nature Rx Tips

  • Make intentional appointments with nature for outdoor recreation
  • Develop interest in outdoor activities or sensory trails
  • Detox digitally by leaving the phone and laptop at home
  • Connect with nature through mindful exploration
  • Invite others to join in
  • Reflect on nature

This article first published in The Richmond Times-Dispatch.

About Lynn Kirk

Lynn Kirk, a freelance writer and marketing consultant, has collaborated with Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden since 2002. She considers it a joy and privilege to write newspaper articles and member newsletters for such a top-rated (and utterly gorgeous!) public garden.

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