I’ve been golfing a lot more this summer! Tee shots into the woods, fairway shots into the water, chips into the sand, and putts. Lots of putts. The normal golfing experience. But golfing has reminded me that there’s another key component to mental and physical health that I’ve forgotten to cover. While I’ve talked about how decreased screen time (digital minimalism) can dramatically improve mental health, I’ve forgotten about the other side of the equation. Just like you can lose weight by cutting out processed and junk food, you can lose even more weight by adding in servings of fruits and vegetables. So, as we’ve seen mental health improve by lowering the amount of time we spend on a screen, we can see our mental health improve even more by adding in time spent in nature. It’s a two-pronged approach that can really make a significant difference in the way we feel. Not only should we be decreasing our screen time, but we should be increasing our green time. Here’s how this works:

Effects of Increased Screen Time

Over the past 30 years, we’re spending more time indoors looking at a screen. Whether its iPhones, TVs, tablets, or laptops, our eyes are glued to a digital display for up to 16 hours a day! This is not only caused from our work becoming more digital, but also from companies stealing and retaining our attention on “entertaining” but time-wasting content. This increase in screen time has been shown to have the following effects on us.

  • Greater Chance of Depression and Anxiety: As my previous post pointed out, Your Phone is Depressing, studies have linked screen time with depression. In a large sample size study on U.S. adults, those who averaged more than 6 hours a day on a screen were at much greater odds of developing depression. The odds were even greater for women, the less educated, and those below the poverty line.
  • Increased Addiction to Dopamine Producing Activities: With dopamine producing digital events like notifications on social media and reward chests on online game, we’ve come to crave more of these short-term rewards. That’s why it’s become so difficult for us to put our phones down and stop looking at them. We’re addicted to these productivity wasting, dopamine boosting events.
  • Decreased Sleep Quality, Continuity and Duration: There’s two fundamental issues here. 1) We’re spending more time on digital displays which provides us less time/opportunity for sleep. 2) Our screen time usage is throwing off our melatonin production at night and making it harder for us to fall and stay asleep. (Managing Artificial Light Exposure Before Bedtime)
  • Increased Risk of Weight Gain, Heart Disease and Diabetes: This may be partially due to increased screen time usage being linked with a sedentary lifestyle, but screen time usage has also been linked with weight gain, increased risk of heart disease and diabetes.
  • Degraded Imagination and Creativity: Since there’s always a new post on Facebook, video on YouTube, or TV show on Netflix, we’re constantly in a state of attention to avoid boredom. The problem with this is boredom provides our minds space to think and imagine. And without this state, many studies have shown a decreased ability to problem solve by up to 47%, and decreased imagination/creativity.

As I’ve posted about numerous times, screen time is a big issue around the world, and we need to find ways to decrease our reliance on it. But as I’ve recently been reminded about in my many rounds of golf, there’s one key area we can reassign our time to which could prove valuable to our health and happiness. Green Time.

Effects of Increased Green Time

Over this same 30-year period, we’re also spending less time outside in nature. We’re not experiencing the trees, plants, grass, water, air, and animals like we use to and it’s becoming a problem. The reason is just tiny amounts of nature in our life can have a dramatic effect. Just having a window with a view of nature outside has been shown to help those in hospitals recover faster. Or just using a picture of nature as your computer’s desktop image has been shown to lower stress levels at work. This is because we were always meant to live outside in nature, and we haven’t adapted to our entirely indoor lifestyle. But by slowly incorporating more outdoor activities in our life, and increasing our green time, we can see a lot of these great benefits:

  • Reduced Levels of Depression, Stress, and Anxiety: In a study comparing two groups of walkers, one group who walked in a natural setting versus another group who walked in an urban setting, the group who walked in a natural setting noticed significantly less rumination (a feeling of negative emotions towards oneself). Rumination is also a good early indicator of depression and anxiety. This group also saw lowered stress levels. Many studies have shown the same thing that time in nature decreases one’s risk for depression and anxiety while lowering stress levels.
  • Positive Effects on Mood and Emotions: Interacting with nature allows you to experience the quiet, soothing sounds of the outside world. It also allows you to breath fresh air and feel the wind on your skin. All of this helps relieve worry and clear your mind which leads to positive effects on mood and emotions.
  • Improved Attention and Focus: Many researchers believe that our constant multi-tasking and interruptions throughout the day are causing our attention and focus to dwindle. A study in 2012 had recent hikers complete as many challenging puzzles as possible in a certain timeframe. The recent hikers completed 47% more puzzles than the control group of people who attempted the puzzles before their hiking adventure. This helps show how our attention and focus can be replenished with more time in nature.
  • Decreased Blood Pressure and Weight Gain: In Japan, there’s a common activity called forest bathing which submerges people in nature without technology for an extended period. Repeatedly, these forest bathers show decreased blood pressure and weight gain from following these routines. Forest bathing is an interesting topic that I’m excited to explore more sometime!
  • Increased Imagination and Creativity: Spending time in nature also allows us to clear our headspace. It gives us the time and space we need to not only replenish our mental energy, but spark imagination and creativity. The outdoor world is so complex and unique that spending more time in it can help us think in new ways.

There’re benefits to not only reducing our screen time but increasing our green time! But what’s the prescription? How much, how often, and how can we do it?

Top 3 Ideas for More Green Time

A study out of Canada showed that students who experienced just 5 minutes a day of nature showed an increase in positive emotions. But I like to think of green time the same way I think of eating vegetables. The more the better! There’s no defined limit where benefits of green time top off but the more time spent in nature, the more prominent the results. Based on my research, I think 20 minutes outside in nature on weekdays and 60 minutes outside on weekend days is a realistic, beneficial goal to shoot for. Some of the best ways I can think of to increase your green time benefits are:

  1. Go Hiking: Go for a hike on the weekends and bring your friends and family. This is not only a fantastic way to increase your green time, but also a way to support your social and physical health.
  2. Walk a Local Park: If you lack time to find a hiking trail or willing friends/family to go with, go for a short walk by yourself in a local park. This can be a terrific way to provide yourself headspace to think, relax, or even meditate while walking. This is something I do daily!
  3. Enjoy Outdoor Activities/Sports: Another wonderful way to increase your green time is with outdoor activities or sports. Try planning a game of tennis, a fishing outing, or a round of golf to get outside and enjoy nature.

Whatever your favorite way of being outside is, start doing it more! Because the benefits of increased green time and decreased screen time are well documented and worth it.

Final Thoughts

Putting the blame of our mental health on screen time alone is too narrow minded and misses the opposite side of the equation. Green time, or time in nature, is just as important and has been shown to help with mental, physical, and social health. We need to start reallocating our time and moving it away from screens and onto the greens. This is one of the main ways we can reduce our risk for depression, anxiety, obesity, high blood pressure, and so much more. So, if you’re like me, mark your next weekend for a round of lost golf balls and putts on the green!

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Hey, I am Brandon Zerbe

Welcome to myHealthSciences! My goal has always been to increase quality-of-life with healthy habits that are sustainable, efficient, and effective. I do this by covering topics like Fitness, Nutrition, Sleep, Cognition, Finance and Minimalism. You can read more about me here.