An estimated 1.1 million fewer people across the UK gained health benefits from spending time in nature in 2022 compared with two years earlier.
The value of those lost health benefits was estimated at around £390 million, equivalent to £356 per person on average.
That is how much it is thought the NHS would be willing to spend if it used treatments to achieve equivalent health benefits to those gained from time spent in nature.
This drop in health benefits was also equivalent to more than 22,000 years of life in perfect health lost across people in the UK.
The trend was caused by a drop in the number of visits to – and time spent in – nature over the last two years. The number of visits is now back to levels last seen in 2019, significantly down from a coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic-led peak in 2020.
These findings form part of our UK natural capital accounts: 2023, which estimate the value of our natural wealth, and what it provides for future generations. You can read more about how we produce these measures in the main release.
As part of this article, we have spoken to the Head of Health and Education at The Wildlife Trusts, Dom Higgins, to get his views on the value of spending time in nature. The Wildlife Trusts is a group of organisations that run nature reserves across the UK.
Fewer people have gained health benefits from outdoor recreation since 2020
Change in the number of visits to, time spent in, and people gaining health benefits from nature, UK, 2009 to 2022
A mixture of recreation surveys has been used to generate a continuous time series, including a transition from the Monitor of Engagement for the Natural Environment Survey between 2009 and 2018, to the People and Nature Survey from 2020 onwards.
Time spent includes both time spent during and travelling to and from visits in nature.
Official survey data covering the period between 2009 and 2018 show that the number of visits to nature, and time spent in it, rose over the decade. This resulted in more people gaining health benefits from this exposure.
Since 2020, however, separate survey data have shown a decline in such activity.
People across the UK made 855 million fewer outdoor recreation visits in 2022 than they did in 2020.
This led to 567 million fewer hours being spent during and travelling to and from these visits over the period – equivalent to around 10 hours per person in the UK on average.
The downward trend since 2020 suggests that an increase in the number of visits to nature witnessed during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic may have been temporary.
Spending time in nature can have a positive effect on health and well-being, with studies showing links between time spent in forests and lower levels of stress.
This health boost can be calculated in terms of a number of years of life lived in perfect health. We can then put a monetary value on this by estimating how much it would cost the NHS to provide the equivalent health benefits. This is thought to be around £356 per person (aged 16 years and over), as explained in our UK natural capital accounts methodology guide: 2023 release.
A recent report published by The Wildlife Trusts found that “green prescribing”, whereby people are referred to nature-based programmes by health professionals, can improve physical and mental health.
Mr Higgins said that mental health was one of the areas where contact with nature could have the most positive effect.
He said: “There are health and wellbeing benefits to spending time in nature. It’s been shown to particularly tackle mild to moderate depression, feelings of stress, and anxiety.
“From my own experience, being outside in wildlife-rich places makes me feel alive. I can shut out the noise, pause to take notice of what’s around me, and feel the beauty of our natural world.
“People love being close to nature and polling shows that local green space is important to fostering pride in people’s communities.”
Links between nature, health and well-being, and climate change are on the agenda for events at the upcoming COP28, the United Nations Climate Change Conference where governments discuss climate change-related policies.
It is not possible to determine all the reasons why the amount of time spent in nature has dropped in recent years.
However, Natural England’s People and Nature Survey does ask people’s reasons for “not spending time in green and natural spaces”.
Poor health and being busy at work and home are barriers to visiting nature
Reasons for not spending time in green and natural spaces by adults who had not visited such spaces in the last 14 days, England, April 2020 to March 2023
Between April 2020 and March 2023, the proportion of adults who said they had not spent time in these spaces in the previous fortnight because of being busy at work or at home, or because of poor physical health, have all increased.
Some of these trends are likely to be caused by changes to restrictions put in place during the coronavirus pandemic.
The data for England also show that, while the total number of people visiting nature rose between 2020 and 2022, the number of visits per person dropped.
More people are visiting nature in England, but fewer people are making multiple visits per week
Number of people visiting nature, by average number of visits per week, England, 2009 to 2018, and 2020 to 2022
- The Monitor of Engagement with the Natural Environment Survey covers 2009 to 2018, while the People and Nature Survey covers 2020 to 2022. No data are available for 2019.
The number of people visiting one to three times per week increased, while those visiting four to six times per week, or seven or more times, fell. This led to a lower number of visits overall.
Data from our Time Use Survey also show a drop in the average time spent on certain activities that are usually done outdoors.
People in the UK are spending less time walking for exercise on average since March 2021
Average daily time (minutes) spent doing specified activities, by all adults, UK, March 2020 to March 2023
- These times are the averages for the whole adult population, so include people who did not do the activities at all.
While we cannot be certain to what extent the drop in the average time spent on these activities is behind the decrease in time spent in nature, this offers some clues as to how people’s behaviour may have changed over the last few years.
The Wildlife Trusts’ Dom Higgins said: "There are also structural barriers, such as access to public transport, as well as social inequity, which means that some people from ethnic minority groups, for example, are less likely to access nature.”
Previous ONS research has shown that the percentage of homes without a garden is higher among ethnic minorities.
Despite the recent decline in time spent in nature, 19.7 million people across the UK still gained health benefits from outdoor recreation in 2022.
This was estimated to be worth around £7 billion in terms of the cost to the NHS of providing the same benefits. To put this into some context, government healthcare spending across the UK was estimated at around £230 billion in 2022.