Human beings evolved as part of the earth’s biosphere, intimately acquainted with the natural world. For millennia, we lived our entire lives surrounded by and interacting with plants and animals. Yet now, in the twenty-first century, many of us rarely step outside or take the time to connect with the natural environment. A mounting body of evidence, however, indicates that nature is crucial for our wellbeing.
Effects of Spending Time in Nature
“There are numerous psychological, physiological, and behavioral benefits derived from spending time in nature,” says Donald A. Rakow, School of Integrative Plant Science, Horticulture. “Studies have shown that time in nature can reduce stress levels, as well as anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues. It can increase the body’s synthesis of natural killer cells, which have been associated with increasing resistance to various forms of cancer and other illnesses and diseases. It can also improve memory, recall, ability to concentrate, and the ability to avoid distractions, all of which contribute to improved learning.”
Intrigued by these findings, Rakow became interested in studying the issue for himself. Currently he is carrying out a group of research studies seeking to ascertain the effects of time spent in nature on youth of different age groups, from elementary students to college undergraduates. In one study, he reviewed the available literature written in English on the effects of spending time in nature, aiming to pinpoint the minimum time dose to boost the mental health of college-age students.
“We found as little as 10 to 20 minutes in nature two to three times a week can positively impact the mental health of young people.”
“We found as little as 10 to 20 minutes in nature two to three times a week can positively impact the mental health of young people,” Rakow says. “That’s not a lot of time, and yet by spending it in nature, you can change not only psychological factors but also your physiological wellbeing. That’s significant.”
Teens of Color and Barriers to Spending Time in Nature
In another study, Rakow collaborates with Dorothy Ibes from the College of William and Mary to look at the primary barriers to greater use of parks and green spaces by urban youth of color and how those barriers can be overcome. The researchers went into the study knowing that urban teens are the least likely to spend time in nature.
“They are the most difficult audience and urban teens of color even more so because there is an attitude among many African American and Latinx teens and adults that nature is the exclusive purview of white folk,” Rakow says. “Part of what we hope to accomplish with this study is to somewhat change that mindset.”
In the first phase of the study, the researchers found some common barriers that keep urban teens of color away from nature, Rakow says. These include the long distance from their residence to the nearest park; the very poor condition of nearby parks; teens’ fear, or their parents’ fear, about park safety after hours; and teens’ very strong focus on social media and use of technology to the exclusion of wanting to be in nature. Rakow and Ibes are now looking at how those barriers can be addressed.
Nature versus Social Media
Teens’ focus on social media, in the study, reflects a general trend in society to spend more and more time with technology. It is often cited as a reason for the poor emotional health of incoming college students as well.
“A 2015 National Collegiate health assessment found that 37 percent of college students they surveyed felt so depressed within the last 12 months that they had difficulty functioning,” Rakow says. “It also found that 59 percent felt overwhelming anxiety. Social media and the expectation young people put on themselves to look perfect in their social media profiles always comes up as one of the theories for what is causing this, along with economic concerns and social isolation.”
Rakow and his colleagues aspire to change the behavior of young people with their research. “Our ambitions are high,” he says. “We hope it will make young people in different age groups more aware of the benefits of nature. We also hope that counselors, teachers, parents, and others who work with youth will hear about our findings and will then encourage young people to spend at least some time in nature each week.”
To do his part toward changing the mindset of college-age students, Rakow helped found the Nature RX@Cornell program, which encourages students to spend more time in nature for their own wellbeing. The program has five components: a nature prescription program administered by Cornell Health, a GPS-based website that directs users to the closest green space on or around the Ithaca Cornell campus, a student club focused on activities in nature, a Nature RX class (PLSCI 1125) for undergraduates taught by Rakow, and a nature e-postering campaign to educate the Cornell student body about the positive effects of spending time outdoors.
“During the 2018–19 academic year, over 240 prescriptions for nature were given to students as part of their electronic health record,” Rakow says. “They were prescribed by physicians, nurse practitioners, psychologists, and other healthcare professionals.” Students receive the Nature RX prescription for a variety of health issues. “For example, if they come in complaining of a high degree of stress or anxiety or an inability to keep up with their studies because they are so anxious or depressed, they might be given a prescription, or if they show evidence or inclination toward self-harm or complain about physical issues such as obesity.” Rakow explains. “But at the same time, while a Nature RX prescription can be a very valuable part of an overall treatment regiment, it’s not intended to be the only approach.”
Rakow is looking forward to the 2019–20 school year, when he and his colleagues at Cornell Health will try out a new protocol to anonymously and confidentially survey students who have been prescribed time in nature—to find out whether the prescription changed their behavior. “We hope to discover whether they are going out in nature more frequently, whether their comfort level in nature has increased, and whether they feel that has improved their wellbeing,” Rakow says.
As a horticulture expert, Rakow has an obvious affinity to plants and the natural world, but his interest in the effects of nature on human wellbeing have their roots in the 20 years he spent as executive director of the Cornell Botanic Gardens. “I’ve had the opportunity to see how affected people are by being in green settings,” he says. “That really motivated me to look at how we can try to positively impact the young people who we see during the academic year so they can become a healthier student body.”