Spending as little as 10 minutes of leisure time experiencing nature can measurably improve college students’ mental health and well-being, according to a recent study led by UMD and Cornell University researchers.
While it’s no secret that exposure to nature has benefits, the “dose” of time outdoors needed to experience them has been unclear until now. The findings published last month in Frontiers in Psychology could revolutionize what a mental health-related prescription looks like for students suffering from stress, anxiety, depression and other increasingly common psychological disorders.
“What’s exciting to me is that we used to have to demonstrate that nature was restorative,” explains Naomi Sachs, assistant professor of landscape architecture at the University of Maryland. “For the most part, those benefits are accepted. But now the question is: How does nature do this? How much? In what way?”
Sachs and colleagues at Cornell pulled together studies from around the world to identify a minimum dose, the kind of natural engagement that caused the response and the best way to measure the effect. As a larger goal, researchers hope to move toward a more holistic approach to health that prescribes time in nature alongside or as an alternative to traditional pharmacological options.
“We rely greatly in our culture on pharma approaches to both physical and mental health problems, and as we know, those medications come with very specific dosages,” says Donald Rakow, associate professor of horticulture at Cornell. “Until recently, there has been nothing analogous to prescribing time in nature, but this review helps move us in that direction.”
Rakow runs a program called NatureRx@Cornell that directs students to natural settings around campus for stress relief and mental wellbeing, and also heads the Campus NatureRx Network of 20 institutions around the country and in Canada that are adopting similar programs, including UMD. At Cornell, health center practitioners are already prescribing time in nature as part of students’ electronic health records, and the goal is to do the same here, said Jennifer Roberts, and assistant professor of kinesiology who leads the UMD branch.
"NatureRx@UMD is an initiative that emphasizes the benefits of the natural environments throughout and around the UMD campus in an effort to address the array of health and well-being issues faced by students and greater campus community,” Roberts said. “The rising trends in mental health issues, specifically suicide, among college students is presented as one of the many reasons for the need of NatureRx@UMD and the like across college campuses. The gains from NatureRx@UMD are both promising and endless."
According to a 2018 World Health Organization study, about one-third of college freshmen worldwide reported mental health issues in the previous year, while another 2018 study showed that about one in five college students reported thoughts of suicide in the previous year.
UMD has many advantages as a green campus, including its distinction as a nationally recognized Arboretum & Botanical Garden.
“If a student can know that nature is good for them and has 10 minutes to go to lunch or get to class, they can choose to take a more nature rich path and pay a little bit more attention to their surroundings to be in that natural experience and get the benefits,” says Sachs. “And that benefit is not just an emotional benefit, it is also a cognitive benefit. Test scores improve, they can better retain and process information— all these things that college students really need.”