Hero photograph
Professor Frog aka Dr Phil Bishop
Photo by Graham Warman Photography

Is Nature Good for You?

Dr Phil Bishop, Zoology Dept, University of Otago —

Dr Phil Bishop looks into research findings on the positive effects of being out in nature. Most of us enjoy nature; we enjoy walking in the forest, on a beach, in the mountains, in Orokonui Ecosanctuary or just around the Town Belt. We enjoy the smells, the sounds and the sights of living plants and animals and we enjoy sharing ‘nature’ with our loved ones, our friends, and our pets.

But does it do you any good? 

In these days of ‘lockdown’ perhaps we should just sit inside and stare at our ‘Nature’ computer screen saver or watch a David Attenborough documentary, surely that’s just as good as being out there in nature?

Being a scientist, I have to maintain a logical viewpoint and probably accept that the endorphins produced in your brain as a result of being in nature versus those produced when watching a nature documentary are probably equivalent, so we should feel just as good watching the TV as going for a walk in the bush. 

Dr Jane Goodall and Dr Phil Bishop, Professor of Zoology at Otago University ...both passionate about the importance of frogs in our ecosystem.

 However, being a frog-fanatic, I know instinctively that while I get great pleasure from watching films or looking at photos of really cool frogs, nothing will beat the enjoyment of capturing one in the hand and looking into its eyes, a truly intimate and amazing experience. So, is getting outside and being exposed to the real nature better for you?

The simple answer is ‘Yes’ and scientific research backs-up my insight! Scientists from the UK, Sweden and USA*[1] published their research last year that showed that you need to spend at least (and preferably more than) 2 hours per week in contact with nature to experience significant increases in feelings of good health and well-being. Using data collected from around 20,000 participants in England they found that 84% of participants who spent between 120-179 minutes a week with direct exposure to nature reported good health, and 65% reported high well-being.

“Aha”, I hear you say, that correlation is just because the people who ‘get out in nature’ are simply those that are more active, so it’s the physical activity that is generating the feelings of good health and well-being. However, there is recent research into Shinrin-yoku (Japanese “forest bathing”)[2], that demonstrates some of these positive feelings can be gained from merely sitting passively in nature. The correlation is not so clear-cut.

Wild Dunedin has promoted these feelings of good health and well-being for the last 4 years and encouraged you to get outside and feel better! It seems even the wildlife knows that there is a lockdown – we were walking our dog on the deserted Chisholm Links and watched an Australasian harrier being mobbed by two magpies and a pair of spur-winged plovers. Driving home we saw a red-billed gull accidentally crash, head to head with a poor unsuspecting cyclist, minding their own business, on Portobello Road on the causeway over Andersons Bay Inlet – both were shaken and a little stirred! Unusual and interesting times!!

Under lockdown we can’t quite get out as much as we would like to, but in the words of our Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, 

“You can leave your home for fresh air, a walk, exercise." 

– so get out there (locally, of course with the people in your bubble), to experience the beauty of nature, feel good, and improve your well-being.

[1] White et al. 2019 Spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature is associated with good health and wellbeing. Scientific Reports 9:7730 (https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-44097-3).

[2] Park, B. J., Tsunetsugu, Y., Kasetani, T., Kagawa, T. & Miyazaki, Y. The physiological effects of Shinrin-yoku (taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing): evidence from field experiments in 24 forests across Japan. Environ Health Prev15, 18–26 (2010).

Dr Phil Bishop is Professor of Zoology at Otago University and is a member of the Wild Dunedin organising committee.