What if I told you that adding one small habit to your day could affect your health, emotional wellbeing, relationships and also your work life? You might think I’m selling snake oil. But as we make plans and resolutions for the new year, there truly is one daily habit that research shows to be extremely beneficial across the board: time in nature. Statistically, we’re destined to fail at most New Year’s resolutions we make. But science seems to show that spending a few daily minutes in nature might actually be an easier goal to keep up than most, and offers a host of rewards. Here’s why you should give it a try.
You’re more likely to keep resolutions that you actually enjoy in the moment.
We’ve all been there—vowing to eat more vegetables, to go to the gym more often, to keep our house uncluttered, to quit refined sugars. The reason we make resolutions about those types of things is because they’re difficult or unpleasant. Otherwise we’d already be doing them. But one proven way to stick with a resolution is this: Pick something that provides immediate results, instead of focusing on rewards you might reap far in the future. A recent University of Chicago study found that “the presence of immediate rewards is a stronger predictor of persistence in goal-related activities than the presence of delayed rewards.”
Time in nature provides those immediate rewards that make you more likely to keep at it.
There are also long-term benefits of exercising and spending time outdoors, but part of the beauty of spending time in nature is that you reap the benefits immediately—you don’t have to wait weeks, months or years to feel stress relief or increased clarity of thought. In her book The Nature Fix, Florence Williams explores the emerging research on nature’s benefits. She dives deeply into the science behind how nature affects us, including the immediate benefits, like stress reduction. And according to the findings of the University of Chicago study, those immediate benefits theoretically make us even more motivated to go outside again, and again. Instead of a resolution that becomes more difficult to keep, this one actually gets easier.
You don’t have to go far.
It’s wonderful to take time off work to visit a national park, or to get up early for a dawn patrol at the local ski hill—but we can reap the benefits of nature in our own backyards, or city parks. Neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote a beautiful essay dedicated to how much he appreciated gardens—and how beneficial they are for health. He lived in New York City for 50 years, depending on city parks and gardens to provide longed-for doses of nature. And as a neurologist, he saw the clear impacts of spending even short amounts of time among plants.
And you don’t have to stay out long.
Again, I don’t want to discourage you for signing up for that ultramarathon, or putting a multi-day backpacking trip on the calendar. But according to new research, you don’t have to spend hours or days outdoors to reap the benefits. Of course, the more time, the better. But as little as five to 15 minutes in nature can make a difference in your body—and mind. So don’t get discouraged if your schedule is busy. Every bit of time walking under trees or on grass makes a difference, even if it’s just a 10-minute walk during your lunch break.
Adding exercise is even better.
New research from Japan supports the idea that time in the forest can help your health even if you’re not exercising. But if you only have time for a quick run from the office and can’t make it out of the city, that’s still beneficial, according to a new study published in Acta Psychologica. The researchers found that even 15 minutes of light exercise immediately enhanced energy levels and cognitive processes—more so than 15 minutes of relaxation.
And it’s good for us even when we’re not enjoying it.
You don’t have to wait for a sunny, beautiful day to enjoy the benefits of time outdoors, either. Florence Williams interviewed a researcher in Toronto who studied people walking in an arboretum on a blustery winter day, and found that even when the walkers didn’t actually enjoy the walk itself, they still performed “much better” on tests of short-term memory and attention.
So if you’re looking for a way to be healthier and happier in 2020—and a habit that will be easy to keep—consider aiming to spend a few minutes outdoors each day. I bet you won’t regret it.