NatureDose: a game-changer for well-being research

December 18, 2023
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in Landscape Trades in December 2023.

In this new regular column for Landscape Trades, Nadina will spotlight Internet of Nature (IoN) technologies and practitioners making a difference in how we can optimize soil health, manage urban forests, create liveable cities, and everything in between.

In my previous column, we discussed NatureScore, a tool that employs machine learning to evaluate the health benefits of nature exposure in specific locations. This data is already in use by numerous governmental and non-profit organizations to identify areas in need of more green spaces. However, merely having nature nearby may not be sufficient. So, the question arises: how can we actively encourage people to venture outdoors and enjoy the health and well-being advantages of nature?

Fitbit for nature

Before Fitbit came onto the scene, the concept of hitting 10,000 steps a day wasn't on most people’s radar. Even today, some doctors debate whether that number is scientifically sound or just a clever marketing gimmick. But one thing is clear: more steps mean better health.

Not all steps are created equal though. There’s been a surge of research showing that spending time in natural settings can be uniquely beneficial for our well-being.

In 2019, a study published in Nature found that people who spend at least 120 minutes in nature every week are significantly more likely to report good health and higher psychological well-being compared to those who don't venture into nature. The amazing thing is that it doesn't matter if you get those 120 minutes all at once or in shorter outings.

We know spending time in nature is beneficial regardless of age, background or health status, but until now there hasn't been a convenient way to measure or motivate nature exposure. Here’s where the NatureDose app comes into play. Built on NatureScore data, the app tracks not just how much time you spend indoors versus outdoors, but also how much time you're exposed to nature.

It might seem counterintuitive to use technology to encourage outdoor activity, but like the Fitbit, this app can be a stepping stone or a way to build a new habit.

The NatureDose app aims to automatically monitor your time spent indoors vs. outdoors and recommend ways to enjoy nature more.

NatureDose in adolescent well-being research

Like many adolescents, Ashton, a 13-year-old skateboard enthusiast in Eugene, Ore., found that being in nature helped clear his mind and reduce stress. This anecdotal evidence was the basis for a research study conducted at the University of Oregon using NatureDose to investigate the impact of nature exposure on adolescents' stress levels, health and behaviour.

By measuring a user’s time in nature and considering elements such as tree canopy, bodies of water, air quality and noise pollution, the app provides detailed and individualized data about adolescents' time spent in nature. Previous research has linked time in nature to various health benefits, but this study stands out for its meticulous data collection and focus on the unique vulnerability of adolescence — a period marked by many physical and emotional transitions that can affect health and well-being.

The implications of this research are profound. Previous studies have shown that time spent in nature can enhance physical and mental health while reducing stress, but this study promises to deliver objective, individualized data.

The results, expected in early 2024, could offer pediatricians and healthcare experts concrete evidence to recommend increased time in nature for adolescents.

This research could also influence urban planning and community design, emphasizing the importance of parks and outdoor spaces in fostering a healthier, less stressful environment for young people. And that is where landscape professionals come in.

What this means for landscape professionals

In recent years, our perception of nature has undergone a remarkable shift. It's no longer solely about preserving the environment; we now recognize its pivotal role in personal and community well-being. This paradigm shift offers an intriguing avenue for landscape professionals to capitalize on.

NatureDose not only monitors users' indoor and outdoor activities, but assesses the quality of their interactions with the natural environment. Crucially, this is not a one-size-fits-all measurement, as different outdoor settings offer varying levels of well-being benefits. For example, a leisurely stroll in a suburban neighbourhood may accumulate partial credits, while a visit to a vibrant park earns full, minute-by-minute credits.

Now, you might be wondering why this level of tracking is significant. It matters because it allows you to comprehend how different outdoor setting can affect overall well-being and potentially modify behaviours. It's not just about spending time outdoors; it's about optimizing exposure to natural environments for maximum well-being benefits.

For landscape professionals, this is where the excitement begins. In the near future, envision incorporating real-world data from apps like NatureDose to make informed design decisions, ensuring your projects aren't merely visually appealing but also promote health. You could even tailor your designs to cater to individual well-being needs, offering unique and personalized outdoor spaces that distinguish you in the market and boost client satisfaction.

With NatureDose's minute-by-minute tracking, you can identify which natural elements have the most substantial impact, allowing you to create spaces that genuinely foster health. You can even provide consultation services that utilize well-being assessment apps, enabling you to evaluate and enhance existing outdoor spaces for health benefits and offer valuable recommendations for modifications or additions, adding extra value to your services. Further, considering the landscape's health impacts creates a new economic model that further supports investment in natural areas.

In the coming years, landscape professionals will have the opportunity to take outdoor design to an entirely new dimension. It goes beyond mere aesthetics; it involves crafting spaces that foster improved health and overall well-being.