UW News

October 24, 2018

A dose of nature: New UW initiative to spearhead research on health benefits of time outside

UW News

Time spent in nature can reduce anxiety and help you sleep better at night, experts have found. It also offers promising benefits for a range of health issues, including cardiovascular disease, depression and obesity.

But there are still many questions about how time in nature can help with these health conditions, and others. A new University of Washington initiative announced this week seeks to advance research on these questions, connecting academic researchers with pediatricians, childcare providers, mental health practitioners and others who work with various populations on critical health issues.

“The Nature for Health initiative is aimed at accelerating our understanding of the health impacts of time spent in nature,” said Joshua Lawler, the initiative’s lead and a UW professor in the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences. “The group is not only about doing this critical research, but also about applying it to create programs and policies that are good for human health.”

Seattle-based REI Co-op has pledged $1 million to help launch the initiative at the UW. The new endeavor is part of EarthLab, a university-wide institute that seeks to connect scholars with community partners to address our most difficult environmental challenges.

“The best researchers in the world are proving the case that getting outside is critical to our mental and our physical well-being,” said REI CEO Jerry Stritzke. “It’s time to rethink time outdoors as a must-have, not a nice-to-have.”

Related: Former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell brings leadership to UW community, new EarthLab initiative

Nature for Health will focus its efforts on research that examines nature’s effects on health across five populations: veterans, children, older adults, health care providers and underserved populations. Researchers from across academic disciplines will partner with experts outside the university to conduct studies and projects that are most pressing to these key groups.

For example, Greg Bratman, a UW assistant professor of environmental and forest sciences, is working with veterans groups to look at the effect of outdoor activities on treating symptoms of PTSD and depression. Dr. Pooja Tandon, a UW assistant professor of pediatrics and a pediatrician at Seattle Children’s Research Institute, is working with outdoor preschools to better understand the benefits of kids spending time outside.

“Some of the conditions that nature can help improve are fairly widespread and are expensive to treat, whether that’s depression, mental illnesses or physical illnesses,” Lawler said. “We know there are benefits from nature, but we need to know more about those benefits to produce better treatment.”

About two and a half years ago, Lawler and UW public health professor emeritus Howard Frumkin convened a small group of professors and community members with expertise in the outdoors industry, pediatric health and environmental nonprofits to talk about the health benefits of nature. That group quickly expanded to a network of more than 120 people with interest and expertise in many facets of nature and health, including outdoor preschool directors and teachers, psychologists, outdoor therapists, and planners from city, county and state offices.

Members of the group published a seminal literature review last year that summarized existing research on the health impacts of time spent in nature. This paper served as the backbone for the formation of the new Nature for Health initiative, leaders said.

“We are bringing UW expertise to bear on real issues that practitioners are grappling with. This will be multidisciplinary, applied research in partnership with others outside the university,” said Ben Packard, executive director of EarthLab. “Access to nature is also an issue of equity and justice which are core to EarthLab’s work. There are decisions made every day about access to nature and this initiative gives us a platform to connect more people across campus, and connect more decision-makers and users of this information on this issue. It has the potential to bring us together like few others.”

EarthLab’s Nature for Health will partner with the Children and Nature Network — a national group that is working to increase equitable access to nature though advocacy and programs — to collectively advance the evidence base for nature’s role in human health and well-being.

The new initiative will kick off with a daylong nature and health symposium today at wǝɫǝbʔaltxʷ – Intellectual House on the UW campus. This evening, Richard Louv, author of “Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder,” will deliver the second-annual Doug Walker Memorial Lecture at Benaroya Hall in Seattle. Both events are hosted by EarthLab and co-sponsored by REI.


For more information, contact Lawler at jlawler@uw.edu and Packard at bwpack@uw.edu.