woman spending time outside to experience the healing power of nature.

E xperiencing nature isn’t just a good way to enjoy the summer. A growing body of research shows that spending time outdoors can improve your health and may reduce mortality.

Even short nature breaks can be beneficial. According to a recent small study, people who spent just 20 minutes in a place where they felt connected to nature experienced a drop in stress hormones.

And nature’s effects don’t require time spent in pure wilderness. Even caring for the potted plants on your windowsill may be good for you.

Mood, Sleep, and More

We often think about access to nature as a perk, says Peter James, Sc.D., an assistant professor in the department of population medicine at the Harvard Medical School. But you should start thinking of these experiences as “a necessity that we need to maintain and sustain healthy lives,” he says.

A 2017 review found research that suggested links between 20 health benefits and spending time outdoors, including better sleep, reduced depression, increased social connectedness, improved recovery from surgery, reduced obesity, and better health for cancer survivors. Another review found that exposure to parks, forests, and other green spaces was associated with reduced mortality from heatstroke, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes among older adults.

More on improving health

Any natural environment may provide therapeutic effects, says Jessica Finlay, Ph.D., an environmental gerontologist at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research. For example, people have traditionally traveled to the sea or to other sources of water for healing purposes. 

There are four primary ways that nature may boost health, James says. First, it provides a buffer from air pollution, noise pollution, and heat, all of which are linked to a higher risk of chronic disease. Second, nature—whether it’s a tree-lined street or a forest—provides a chance to be physically active, which can improve health in a number of ways, especially by lowering the risks of cancer and cardiovascular problems and by improving mental health and cognitive function. Third, nature provides opportunities to socialize with friends, which is associated with improved health. The fourth way may be the most interesting, according to James and other experts. Nature may improve health directly by helping people recover from stress and restore their focus. That benefit may help explain the long-term reductions in chronic disease that have been linked to nature. 

A Little Goes a Long Way

While a mandate to get outside may bring a variety of health perks, it can also seem difficult to achieve, especially if you live in an urban area or have problems with mobility.

But it doesn’t have to be so daunting, says MaryCarol Hunter, Ph.D., an associate professor at the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability. In Hunter’s study, which demonstrated that 20 minutes in nature might be enough to affect stress hormones for some people, participants were allowed to choose any outdoor location that made them feel connected with nature. For some people, that meant just stepping outside a building and into a place with a clear view of the sky.

Choose the nature experience that’s accessible and therapeutic for you. Even if you can’t get outside, there’s evidence that looking out a window or even viewing scenes of woodlands and meadows on a computer screen may do some good.

If you want to maximize the benefits of nature, try to experience your outdoor space without distractions like a cell phone. “It’s really about being present with whatever version of nature you find yourself with,” Hunter says.

And last, start small. Even people who love nature may not engage with it as much as they think they do—or as much as they should—according to Hunter. She recommends beginning by committing to spending just 5 minutes every day in a space connected to nature. 

From the Tip Jar

On the "Consumer 101" TV show, Consumer Reports' experts offer host Jack Rico advice on making the most of sunscreen, the best natural light for taking photos, and which insect repellents to use. 

Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the August 2019 issue of Consumer Reports On Health.