Not Enough Time

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How Often Are Canadians Connecting with Nature?

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Canadians spend over 90% of their time indoors, and 30% of Canadians don’t participate in any nature activities at all.

Where are you at with how much time you spend in nature?

This is a challenging time and most people have made significant changes to their daily routines – including time outdoors and in nature – as a result of the recent health concerns related to COVID-19.

It’s also an opportunity for many people to examine how they spend their time given the changes in our schedules and routines that we have all had to face.

Everyone is pressed for time. I have yet to find someone who says they have extra time in their calendar waiting to be filled. Time is about priorities and priorities are highly individualized.

Leisure time – time outside of work and family commitments – is precious. This time is one place where we feel time is “ours” and it’s important for us to have this time to recover mentally.

(Image Courtesy of Harry Sandu, Unsplash.com)

However, for many people the amount of time we spend outdoors or in nature is not enough. (particularly when considering the benefits of nature).

Interestingly recently many communities and outdoor recreational spots have seen unprecedented volumes of visitors prompting park closures – and some innovative solutions  – to deal with overcrowding outside.

Ideally we would all like to have leisure time that is healthy, helps us to recover, improves our happiness and well-being . Spending time outdoors and in nature is one way people can spend their leisure time that can also have health benefits.

How Much Time Should We Spend in Nature?

As much as we can. You can skip the rest of this post!

OK, there’s a bit more to it than that. The science behind the amount of time we should spend in nature looks at a couple of different factors.

I am going to use a medical analogy here – relating contact with nature to how medications are related to changes in health conditions.

While some of you may cringe at the medical analogy I think that it can be helpful we want to think of nature as something that has biological effects on people – which it does. It’s useful to think of the factors that might play into what might make contact with nature more or less enjoyable or to have long-lasting effects for people (a future post will get into the details about the right dose of nature).

Here is generally what the research literature tells about how much time we should spend in nature:

  • More time in nature is associated with greater feelings of well-being and measures of health than less
  • Approximately 120 minutes per week seems to be the minimum amount people need
  • The benefits of nature may start to level off after 4 – 5 hours
  • Time in nature can be several short activities or a few longer activities as long as the total time is at least 2 hours per week

Ok, so now that we have some background on how much time we should be spending in nature where do we currently stand? (or at least where we stood prior to coronavirus restrictions on outdoor activities)

Canadians’ Time in Nature

I’ve spent my entire life in Canada aside from travel so I thought I’d start focus here and also look at how canucks stack up to our friends south of the border.

Canadians are sometimes stereotyped as the flannel-wearing, bearded fur-trapping explorers – the original hipsters. You’d think the average Canadian would spend a lot of their time in outdoor and natural environments. While this might have been true for parts of Canada in the past, over 80% of Canadians now live in urban environments.

Oh Canada. (Image Courtesy of Shutterstock)

Half of Canadian families report that nature is an important part of their family’s well-being.

People report feeling happier when they are in nature.

Almost all Canadians (94%) are aware that nature provides both physical and mental health benefits according to the Nature Conservancy of Canada. This report also found that 87% of Canadians felt happier when they spent time outdoors.

However, when we look at the numbers, we aren’t connecting all that frequently with nature on a daily basis. Here are some reports on how much time people are spending outside or in nature from Canada and a few comparisons from the U.S.

Amount of Time Outdoors vs Indoors

The Community Human Activities Survey conducted in 1996 surveyed close to 2,400 Canadians on how they spend their time throughout the day and across seasons.

Overall Canadians spent 94% of their total time indoors. Around ¾ of their total outdoor time was spent away from home. Canadians spent more time outside in summer when compared to winter (perhaps not too surprising).

A repeat of the survey in 2014 with 5,000 Canadians found similar results. Time indoors, or in vehicles, accounted for almost all of people’s time (94% combined). The amount of time spend outdoors (6%) was similar to the amount of time spend in vehicles (5%).

The average amount of time people spent outdoors was around 2 hours. However, 50% of respondents spent less than 30 minutes outdoors daily. This average is likely inflated by some nature super-users spending a lot of time outdoors (way to go!).

The summer months were also associated with twice as much outdoor time as winter months. From childhood to adulthood there was decrease in the amount of time spent outdoors. Men tended to spend a bit more time outdoors then women.

The General Social Survey Canadians at Work and Home conducted by Statistics Canada surveyed approximately 20,000 Canadians in 2016 on a variety of work and personal topics. The survey asked people about outdoor activities people engaged in during the past 12 months.

(Image Courtesy of Statistics Canada)

Almost 70% of people reported spending some time outdoors in this survey. For people that spent time outdoors, 40% reported taking part in two or more different activities.

Hiking or backpacking (44%), wildlife viewing or photography (32%), and camping were the most common activities. Activities outdoors were most common among people who reported their health as excellent. However, 40% of individuals with poor health also reported some participation in the outdoors.

The Coleman Canada Outdoor Report in 2017 found that 29% of Canadians spend less than 30 minutes outdoor each week and 64% spend less than two hours outside each week.

Time Spent Connecting With Nature

The 2012 Canadian Nature Survey by Nature Canada surveyed 24,000 Canadians on their awareness and activities related to nature. Over the course of year 70% of respondents reported some outdoor activities in the previous year.

The most common activities were picnics or relaxing in nature (71%), reading or viewing nature related media (66%), hiking or climbing (64%) and gardening or landscaping (51%).

The numbers of days that people spent in nature-based activities was highest for birding (133 days), followed by nature-based recreation (95 days) and nature-based leisure activities (72 days).

(Image Courtesy of the Canadian Nature Survey)

Some of the factors related to differences in the amount of time spent in nature were reported. Overall, women spent more days in nature then men (about 30 more per year).

People in rural communities spent more time in nature activities than urban dwellers. Recent immigrant or first-generation Canadians spent less time in nature when compared Canadians from from 2nd generation families.

Our Friends in the United States

Americans have similar patterns of indoor time and time in nature when compared to Canadians. Most of their time is also indoors – 93% of the time is spend indoors or in vehicles. This is very similar to the Canadians.

A survey from 2019 found that 16% of American’s spent no time in nature at all. An additional 15% of people connected with nature less than once a month. One quarter reported spending time in nature several times per week. A quarter of Americans report spending less than 2 hours per week in nature according to The Nature of Americans Report in 2017.

The most common types of activities reported by Americans were similar that of Canadians with hiking, camping, and walking being some of the most common activities.

(Image Courtesy of Nature of Americans Report, 2017)

Why People Don’t Connect with Nature More

There are several reasons, both legitimate and weak, why people don’t spend time in nature. Three quarters of Canadians report that it is easier to spend time indoors than to go outside (no kidding!). Work and family obligations present the biggest barriers for Canadians participating more in outdoor activities.

In the U.S., competing demands on people’s time – like work, or other family obligations – were reported by about half of people as the most common reason for people not spending more time in nature as well.

Reasons for Not Participating in Nature (Courtesy of APM Research Lab)

What Should We Do About Our Lack of Time in Nature?

We all have different life situations and motivations for how we spend out time. There are a few general conclusions that we can all take away from this:

  • Almost all of our time is spent indoors. We should all probably be trying to reduce our time indoors even a bit wherever it is possible.
  • Close to a third of people in Canada spend no time on nature related activities – this isn’t good.
  • For those of us who do enjoy nature, we should act as ambassadors and think creatively about how to get more people out into nature.
  • Most people could probably spend a bit more time outdoors and in nature.
  • There are a range of activities that people participate in nature or the outdoors. There are likely activities that most people could engage in relatively easily.
  • Public health and governments should promote nature and the outdoors, similar to messaging with physical exercise.

I hope this encourages you to think about the amount of time you spend in nature and outdoors. Like many of you I am looking forward to spending more time outdoors and in nature once the current health crisis subsides.

As always, I welcome your comments on this post and our other posts on Nature Brain. Take care and thanks for reading.

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