Seattle's Freeway Park. Concrete walkway surrounded lined by trees and a couple of benches.

Seattle's Freeway Park.

On the whole, Washingtonians are pretty good at spending time outdoors. But after months of attending Zoom meetings in pajamas (camera off), the temptation to stay hunkered down throughout the colder months might be hard to overcome.

Yet it's vital to resist the lure of a total living room retreat, according to University of Washington social scientist Kathleen Wolf. Even a small dose of nature can have a lasting positive effect on one’s mental state, says Wolf, whose research in the School of Environmental and Forest Services focuses on the connection between the natural environment and mental health.

Scientists have long known of a correlation between exposure to nature and reductions in stress, anxiety, and depression. Recently, though, researchers have examined this connection more closely, conducting experimental studies that Wolf likens to vaccine or pharmaceutical trials. Volunteers are recruited, asked to adopt certain behaviors, and then evaluated at the end. Some primary care doctors in the U.S. have even begun handing out nature prescriptions to their patients, explaining the benefits of getting outside and sharing information about nearby parks.  

We could probably all use a little help from Mother Nature this winter, whether in the form of a weekly trip to the backcountry or a well-placed houseplant. Wolf has some tips for working nature into your schedule.

Replace your work commute with a social one. 

Wolf says she used to be a bike commuter. But when remote work made that trip obsolete, she found that she wasn’t spending nearly as much time outside. Your commute may be cancelled, too. But you can still take a jaunt around the neighborhood every morning or bike to a nearby park. “Build it into your personal and social life,” says Wolf. You could even plan a weekly (physically distanced) outing with a friend to hold one another accountable.  

Think about dosage.  

If you’re planning a nature routine, consider one you can maintain. Not everyone can take a weekly trip to the mountains. That’s OK. According to Wolf, as little as 20 to 30 minutes outside can have a mood-boosting effect. Not only would a short walk outside feel good in the moment, Wolf says, “but it carries over. There's a residual [effect] as you go back indoors or go to work.”  

Spot the nature in your neighborhood. 

When you’re walking, “take some time to be mindful of what’s around you,” says Wolf. You may not live next door to a park, but a crack in the sidewalk can be a catalyst for some plant life. Even the streets of downtown sport a few trees here and there–spend some time contemplating them. “See if you don’t discover some small nature bits that you really enjoy.”  

Gear up.  

However little social interaction we have this winter, it’s likely that a good portion of it will happen outdoors. Seattleites hardly need a reminder to “wear layers!” but walking in the park isn’t the same as finding an outdoor space to sit and read (or escape from housemates for a bit). Restaurants around the city have been doing their part to prepare for a winter of outdoor dining–now it’s our turn to think about ways we can stay warm outside, whether or not we’re on the move. “The technology of clothing is fantastic,” said Wolf. “So if you can afford it, invest in clothing that you can throw on and immediately be comfortable, dry, and warm.” Maybe even purchase your own outdoor heating lamp.  

Bring the outside in.  

Your home doesn’t need to be an idyllic farmhouse or remote cabin in the woods to meet your quarantine needs. In fact, research shows that simply looking through a window to the outdoors can help people de-stress. Whether planning a small outdoor garden or carefully selecting indoor plants for an apartment, the key is to be thoughtful. “Think about the elements of nature that give you pleasure,” says Wolf. This might mean installing a bird feeder, so you can watch wildlife move outside your window, or tending to some potted evergreens on your balcony. Whatever you choose, says Wolf, should give you “moments of respite.”