Nearby Nature Linked With Better Well-being During COVID-19

Nearby Nature Linked With Better Well-being During COVID-19

Many studies have shown that being in nature can improve one’s mental health and well-being. A new Cornell Lab of Ornithology study went a little deeper, looking at what kinds of nature experiences were associated with a higher sense of well-being during the COVID pandemic.

The findings suggest that experiencing nature close to home is associated with a greater sense of well-being than longer, more intense nature excursions or experiencing nature through various media.

“I think the thing that really calls to me from this work is the importance of just being able to have a bit of nature that’s close by and that you can access even for a short time,”

said lead author Tina Phillips, assistant director of the Center for Engagement in Science and Nature at the Cornell Lab.

Nature Trips Didn’t Help Much

Although nearby nature engagement was associated with a higher overall positive outcome from exposure to nature, there was no correlation with loneliness. The least beneficial associations were associated with indirect nature experiences through various forms of media.

Nearby nature engagement includes activities like gardening, photographing nature, birdwatching, looking out a window and watching nature, walking or hiking, and visiting a park or natural area.

“I think the biggest surprise was that nature excursions were not correlated with better well-being,”

said Phillips. The emotional toll of the pandemic, reported mental health, and loneliness were all worse for those who engaged in more of those activities.

The fact that age was the most reliable indicator of the benefits of exposure to nature on well-being across the board also surprised Phillips.

Pandemic Mental Health Survey

Relative frequency of participants engaging in various types of nature engagement during the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic.
Credit: People and Nature (2023). DOI: 10.1002/pan3.10433

More than 3,200 Americans were surveyed by the authors in October 2020, six months into the pandemic and while many lockdowns were still in effect. They surveyed participants’ levels of loneliness, recurrent negative thoughts, mental health, and emotional response to the pandemic.

The responses were examined along with how frequently respondents engaged in three different types of nature during the pandemic:

  • Nearby nature: activities close to home
  • Nature media: indirect exposure from books, wildlife cameras, and nature documentaries
  • Nature excursions: fishing trips, hunting, backpacking, and kayaking – more strenuous activities requiring preparation and travel.

Based on previous research, the study’s authors hypothesized that any type of nature exposure should be associated with higher levels of reported well-being.

It is important to note that this type of research does not establish a cause-and-effect relationship between the study variables, only that they frequently occur together. There is no guarantee that one variable will predict another.

Nature Access Inequalities

The survey also brought to light ongoing social justice issues concerning access to nature.

“The pandemic laid bare a host of societal issues and inequities. It is often those with the greatest need who have the least access to nearby nature. Everyone should be able to access the natural environment within a short distance from home. We can make this a reality by protecting natural lands, creating parks, and implementing policies and programs to ensure access for all,”

said co-author Nancy Wells.

Urban minority neighbourhoods are already known to have a variety of health risks due to their proximity to highways, toxic pollution from factories, and generally deteriorated buildings and streets. Access to nature and green space is frequently overlooked when it comes to addressing the health disparities that exist between people.

For instance, according to a 2021 study, the communities most impacted by COVID-19 also have the least amount of nearby nature. Vegetation and parks are typically less accessible in low-income and minority communities.

But it’s not necessarily better in the country than in the city.

People living in rural areas, particularly poor rural areas, have less access to healthcare resources. Even though 20% of the U.S. population lives in rural areas, only 9% of physicians practice in rural areas. Individuals in rural areas must typically travel farther to receive care, endure lengthy wait times at clinics, or cannot obtain the required care on time.

Taking Time Out for Nature

It does not take much time to reap nature’s mental and emotional benefits.

People who spend at least 120 minutes per week in nature are significantly more likely to report good health and higher psychological well-being than those who do not visit nature at all on a weekly basis, according to research conducted in 2019 and led by the University of Exeter.

But even spending a fraction of that much time outside could tip things in your favour.

“We can’t emphasize enough the power of spending even 10 minutes outside. There’s so much evidence that taking the time to be outside in whatever slice of nature is nearby can be so beneficial.”

said Phillips.

Wells hopes that we can all apply the lessons learned from the pandemic and this study going forward. incorporating regular time in nature should be part of our daily activities.

  1. Phillips, T. B., Wells, N. M., Brown, A. H., Tralins, J. R., & Bonter, D. N. (2023). Nature and well-being: The association of nature engagement and well-being during the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. People and Nature, 00,1– 14.
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  4. Spotswood, E.N., Benjamin, M., Stoneburner, L. et al. Nature inequity and higher COVID-19 case rates in less-green neighbourhoods in the United States. Nat Sustain 4, 1092–1098 (2021).