One of the first published studies to examine how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted people’s relationship with nature finds that the people of Vermont have significantly increased the time they spend outdoors.

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During a time when their leaders are encouraging them to stay at home and maintain physical distance, many people are returning to nature.

Researchers from the University of Vermont collected data from online surveys taken by over 3,200 Vermonters between May 3 and May 19, 2020 — a time when Governor Phil Scott had placed restrictions on businesses and social gatherings to lessen the impact of COVID-19 on the state.

The results appear in the journal PLOS ONE.

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In the study, the respondents said they had increased participation in several outdoor activities during the pandemic, including:

  • walking -— up 70%
  • wildlife watching — up 64%
  • relaxing outside alone — up 58%
  • taking photos and creating art — up 54%

Of the 15 outdoor activities studied, the participants reported decreases in camping (48%) and relaxing outside with others (43%): two activities where it can be hard to maintain physical distance.

The researchers also asked the respondents how they thought being outside benefited them.

Nearly 60% of the participants experienced improved mental health and well-being after being outdoors, while 29% said they go outside for exercise.

Other things the participants valued about outdoor time included appreciating nature’s beauty (29%) and feeling a connection to something bigger than themselves (22%).

Dr. Rachelle Gould, the study’s senior author and an assistant professor at the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources at the University of Vermont, says:

“These data are like a treasure chest of the pandemic moment: a record of how people have been thinking about their relationship with the rest of the world in a time of great upheaval.”

Female respondents, who made up 63% of the participants, reported increased gardening, hiking, relaxing outdoors socially, relaxing alone outdoors, walking, and wildlife watching.

The fact that women reported increased activity across the six most common nature activities caught the researchers’ attention. They question whether women may be experiencing increased professional and household responsibilities during the pandemic and whether that makes them more likely than men to seek time outdoors as a stress reliever.

“More research is needed, but our preliminary analysis suggests that, during the pandemic, women are more likely than men to report increased importance of values that include mental well-being, beauty, exercise, familiarity with landscape, and fun,” says Dr. Gould.

“Our next step is to analyze the qualitative data to explore this result more fully,” she says.

Study respondents who lost their jobs during the pandemic had a higher likelihood of reporting increased gardening, relaxing outdoors socially, walking, and watching wildlife.

“This suggests that COVID-19 is overturning the idea that nature and its benefits — from stress reduction to social connection — are becoming ‘luxury goods,'” says Diana Hackenburg, a Ph.D. candidate at the Rubenstein School and a Gund Graduate Fellow.

The researchers caution that these results cannot be generalized beyond predominantly rural areas in the Northeastern United States.

Also, the results might not be representative of the general population. For instance, 92% of the participants were white.

Also, 48% of the participants lived in rural areas, 26% in urban clusters, and 26% in urban areas. The average age was 54.7, and the median reported household income was between $75,000 and $99,999.

Since all participants were from Vermont, the respondents were a more homogenous group than if the survey had been conducted in other U.S. locations, researchers say.

Researchers also note that advertisements recruiting survey participants appeared on a community listserv and on the social media sites of environmental and social-service organizations.

They caution this approach could have resulted in study participants who are more likely to use nature to cope with the stress of the pandemic than the general population.

Already, the University of Vermont research team has conducted a follow-up survey with the original respondents to better understand long-term impacts of the pandemic on their relationship with nature.

Their hope, researchers say, is that their work may lead to decision makers removing barriers to nature access during the pandemic.

“This study is a timely snapshot of the central role nature plays in our well-being and how important access to nature is during challenging, uncertain times, like this pandemic,” says another of the authors, Tatiana Gladkikh, a Gund Graduate Fellow and a Ph.D. candidate at the Rubenstein School.

She adds, “I hope the results help inform future land management decisions.”

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