Getting Back to Nature

by Jay Maddock, PhD

The Dean’s Perspective focuses on issues pertinent to the relationship between academic public health and the practice community.

Jay E. Maddock, PhD, FAAHB

Recently, I found myself back in my hometown in the state of Rhode Island for a weekend visit. On Sunday morning, I decided to take a walk on a newly developed trail that was the old Girl Scout camp when I was growing up. As I moved through the woods on my solitary journey, the familiar landscape brought me back to my childhood. As a boy growing up, my family’s house abutted a large forest of several hundred acres. My friends and I would spend hours running through the woods, playing games, and building forts. On my hour-and-a-half hike, I passed three groups, each of two middle-aged women. The trail, which led to a beautiful salt water lake, was virtually empty, even though it was a gorgeous sunny day with temperatures in the upper 60s. So where was everyone?

My thoughts turned to a great book by Richard Louv entitled Last Child in the Woods. In the book, he documents the rapid drop in children’s exposure to natural environments and writes about nature-deficit disorder. Over the last several decades, there have been numerous studies on exposure to nature and improvements in health and wellbeing for both children and adults. The earliest studies showed a relationship between exposure to nature and less time spent in the hospital. More recent studies have examined the relationship between time spent in nature and changes in mood, depression, anxiety, and ADHD symptoms. One recent study in the UK even showed an increase in happiness from people who moved to a greener environment over a 3-year period. Of course, time in nature also provides a great opportunity for physical activity and its well-documented health benefits. So, if exposure to nature is so good for you, how often do Americans actually access it?

Not so much. The National Human Activity Pattern Survey estimates that Americans spend almost 90% of their time indoors. Meanwhile, a study of national park attendance has shown a steady decline in per capita visits since 1987. I have seen this in my own research. A few years ago, we conducted a month-long study assessing physical activity in parks in Chicago. During this time, we observed just over 2,400 people using the parks. A couple of years later, we conducted a similar study in Nanchang, China, a city with approximately the same population as Chicago and we observed over 75,000 people using the parks. This admittedly crude calculation showed that residents of Nanchang were 30 times more likely than Chicago residence to use their city parks. A study by the National Trust in the UK found that children spent about half the time playing outside as their parents did when they were children. While none of these studies are perfect, it does appear to indicate that Americans and Brits are spending less time outside than they used to. What is the role of public health in changing this?

We have an intervention that is low-cost or free in most cases, can be done in most environments, is accessible to most people, and provides a variety of health benefits. But outside of incidentally being connected to physical activity, being out in nature is almost never promoted by the public health community. Are we training our health promotion students to encourage people to get back into nature? Are we training our school teachers to expose students to nature? This has not been part of our curriculum at my school, and it probably needs to be. On the positive side, we have engaged with our College of Architecture and its landscape design class to redesign the space between our School of Public Health buildings as a place where faculty, staff, and students can have easy access to a restorative natural environment. By partnering to help create these environments, we can model this behavior and create examples for others to follow. Developments of butterfly gardens and other natural spaces in school grounds and communities can provide easy access to these health-promoting environments. Getting children off of screens and outside should be a national priority.

Leave me a comment and let me know how you are encouraging yourself or others to get back to nature. I hope when I head out next time, I’ll be less likely to be hiking alone.

For further reading, consider these related articles from the Journal of Public Health Management & Practice:*

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Jay E. Maddock, PhD is the Dean of the School of Public Health at Texas A&M University. He is internationally recognized for his research in social ecological approaches to increasing physical activity. He has served as principal investigator on over $18 million in extramural funding and authored over 100 scientific articles. [Full Bio]

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One comment

  • Now I’m feeling huge regret that I didn’t hike with you that day! Great article, Last Child in the Woods is one of my favorite books. Generally the kids and I hike with the dog every weekend and we try hitting a new trail each time. I spend my lunch break walking outside almost every day, even in the cold weather. I get a lot of inspiration from Katy Bowman and her Nutritious Movement Blog.