People are increasingly turning to nature to cope with the pandemic and improve their wellbeing

As social activity is reduced and stress is running high, nature seems to be offer valuable support for mental wellbeing, a new Canadian study finds. This was especially the case among women and unemployed workers, who spent more time, taking walks, doing outdoors activities, and watching wildlife.

Image credit: University of Vermont

Human-nature relationships benefit people in many ways. Such benefits can be material (such as food and flood protection) or nonmaterial (such as mental health and spiritual fulfillment) and can occur through a diverse range of human-nature interactions, from subsistence practices to recreation.

A study from last year found that spending time with nature produced a significant drop in the stress hormone cortisol, with the duration of the nature experience contributing to the amount of stress reduction. Another research from 2004 showed having access to a garden has a significant positive impact on stress. Now, researchers have begun to review the effects of COVID-19 on nature experiences.

Preliminary evidence shows that both visits to and the value of natural areas have increased during the pandemic and that compared to time spent indoors, time spent outdoors was associated with greater psychological well-being.

A study led by Rachelle Gould from the University of Vermont asked local residents about the impact of the pandemic on their engagement with nature-based activities and how time outside affected their mental health. To do so, Gould and her team carried an online survey with over 3,200 people during the lockdown in May.

Speaking with VTDigger, Gould said that during the pandemic even people who don’t normally engage with nature were going outside more. “There were a lot of people saying, ‘I’m looking at my bird feeder, I’m looking at the tulips coming up in my front yard.’ It was very much not like conquering mountaintops,” she added.

Turns out, that’s exactly what the study found: people are spending more time in nature. Compared to the same time last year, participants in the survey said to spend more time watching wildlife (up 64%), gardening (57%), taking photos or doing other art in nature (54%), relaxing alone outside (58%), and making their masked and distanced way on walks (70%).

People also experienced a shift in the way they value nature. During the pandemic, respondents said in nature they cherished a greater sense of mental health and wellbeing (59%), exercise (29%), appreciating nature’s beauty (29%), sense of identity (23%), and spirituality (22%), along with other less common values.

The study also found significant socio-demographic trends associated with increased activity engagement. Female respondents were the only demographic who reported increased activity across all six of the most engaged-in activities we surveyed, suggesting that women more than men are turning to nature in this challenging time.

Although research on the gender equity implications of COVID-19 is presently limited, the pandemic has likely increased professional and household burdens on women much more than men. How this finding interacts with our gender-related findings is a rich area for future study, the researchers believe.

“Our preliminary analysis suggests that, during the pandemic, women are more likely than men to report increased importance of values that includes mental well-being, beauty, exercise, familiarity with landscape, and fun,” says Gould. “Our next step is to explore the qualitative data to explore this result deeper.”

At the same time, the odds of reporting increased gardening, relaxing socially, walking, and wildlife watching were higher for respondents who had lost their jobs during the pandemic than those who retained them. Unemployment results in less structured time and outdoor activities provide a well-documented source of stress relief.

The researchers believe that this finding offers a potential rebuttal to arguments that nonmaterial benefits from engagement with nature, such as stress reduction and social connection, are “luxury goods.” The fact that people who lost their job prioritize nature activities suggests the many benefits they can bring.

With this in mind, Gould and her team urged policymakers to ensure that the most widely accessible outdoor activities receive the support needed to meet demand, for both frequent participants and marginalized populations for whom the benefits of such participation might be especially important in times of crisis.

The study was published in the journal PLOS ONE.

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