Around the Academy, it’s often said that a bad day in the field is better than a good day in the office.
Though I know this to be true, when I’m called upon to do field work I am occasionally met by a slight feeling of anxiety: “I have so much to do in the office! What about all the emails I’ll get while I’m out? I’ll be another day behind on my work when I return.”
Inevitably, though, as we head out, this anxiety fades like the Center City skyline in our rear-view mirror. By the time we’ve reached the field site — even those that are only just beyond the city limits — I look around at the site (usually a creek), take a moment to appreciate how lucky I am and tell myself, “See? This is way better than anything you’d be doing in the office.” I notice I am calm, cool and excited to start collecting water samples, algae, insects, fish… whatever’s the order of the day.
Doctors and psychologists have long recognized that spending time in nature leads to a healthier well-being, and a growing field of research aims to better understand and quantify the benefits of spending time in nature. Time spent outdoors is related to lower stress levels, decreased blood pressure, and a reduced risk of chronic diseases such as asthma, allergies, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Additionally, nature time can boost mental health, mood and alertness, and correlates to longer life expectancy. A book by Florence Williams, The Nature Fix, delves into the idea of nature as therapy. Doctors are even beginning to write “park prescriptions” as part of treatment plans for certain physical and mental health conditions, much like they’d prescribe antibiotics for an infection or recommend physical therapy for an injury.
So, if the prescription is to spend more time in nature, what’s the dosage? A recent The New York Times article highlights some new findings, namely that researchers have zeroed in on the ideal amount of outdoor time for reaping nature’s maximum health benefits: 120 minutes per week.
Two hours in a week doesn’t seem like a lot of time, but it can sometimes be difficult to fit that time into our already hectic schedules. Here are some easy suggestions for adding 120 minutes of outdoor time to your week.
Monday – 15 minutes
Mondays can be tough. Clear your mind and refocus with a short walk in a nearby park on your lunch break. A beautifully landscaped park, even in winter, provides a convenient escape from the stress of the day. Benefits: Spending only 15 minutes in the woods or a park can reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
Tuesday – 40 minutes
Hit the Schuylkill River Trail for a walk, jog or bike ride. It’s a perfect spot for date night, exercise or quiet reflection. Benefits: Connect to the river for a sense of “place.” Also, walking is heart healthy!
Wednesday – 5 minutes
Backyard “bio-blitz!” No matter the size of your yard, or your stoop, or your balcony, go outside and see how many insects, plants, birds, whatever, that you can find in 5 minutes. If you snap some photos of your discoveries, you can upload them to iNaturalist to have a worldwide community of experts and amateur naturalists help you identify what you found. Your discoveries might even help provide data for someone’s research! Benefits: Discover that nature and wildlife are everywhere! It’s kind of like a fun, real-life “Pokemon Go” activity for your family. “Gotta catch em all!”
Saturday – 60 minutes
Birding hike in the Wissahickon Valley Park. Wissahickon Valley Park has been designated by the National Audubon Society as an Important Birding Area. Take a hike through the beautiful forests and meadows surrounding Wissahickon Creek, but leave your earphones at home and enjoy the sounds of the forest. Note how many different bird calls can you hear. Benefits: The sounds of nature, especially running water and birdsong, are known to improve mood and alertness.
No matter how you fit it into your life, spending more time in natural areas will benefit your body and mind. Find some time to get outdoors!
By Kathryn Christopher, Manager of Science Communication and Outreach