By Dr Jo Barton
How do you feel when you go outside for a walk? If it is a green place, whether in the city or countryside, the chances are high that you will feel better. Even when it is bitterly cold, fiendishly hot, or lashing with rain, being close to nature and the elements seems to improve our sense of well-being. Thus, participating in physical activity in greenspaces – ‘green exercise’ – brings additional mental and physical health benefits, which could form part of a solution to a number of growing health and environmental problems.
The green exercise research program
Our green exercise research program at the University of Essex (UK) has started to quantify some of these health benefits. The research has involved a range of different types of nature therapies, contexts, activities, clients, motivations and needs, but all have shown positive health and wellbeing benefits. Findings report that many types of activities, irrespective of activity and duration (e.g. walking, cycling, horse-riding, fishing, conservation and so on), lead to improvements in self-esteem and mood, by reducing feelings of anger, confusion, depression and tension. We have also measured physical health benefits, such as reduced blood pressure, and seen how engaging in group activities facilitates social networking and connectivity.
How much exercise is needed?
So, how much green exercise is sufficient to produce health benefits? In medical terms what is the ideal ‘dose of nature’? Is there an ideal prescription for the type, duration, intensity and frequency of participation? How much nature should there be in the environment? How do different natural habitats and levels of biodiversity (e.g. urban green space, countryside, waterside, wilderness, and woodlands) affect these health outcomes? Is there a universal dosage or does it depend on demographics? We conducted a multi-study analysis based on changes in self-esteem and mood data pre- and post- green exercise interventions and found no great differences for urban space, countryside and woodland habitats, which is an important finding for urban residents who may have limited access to rural areas. It also highlights the importance of urban parks. However, green spaces with water had a bigger effect, so seeking out a visit to a lake, river or coastal areas will have added benefits.
Our research also implies the first five minutes of green exercise has the biggest impact on improving self-esteem and mood. All durations of activity have a positive effect but the biggest difference is seen in the first five minutes of exposure. Longer amounts have positive effects but do not necessarily equate to significantly greater rewards. The findings also showed that light intensity activities produced the greatest effects and that individuals experiencing mental ill-health benefited the most. This suggests that sedentary participants will receive a large immediate health benefit from light physical activity and such doses of nature will contribute to immediate mental health benefits.
So, what are the longer term consequences of not participating in green exercise? Several important longitudinal cohort studies indicate clearly that many of the social and environmental conditions of childhood predict or track adult health status. This suggests a need to establish good behaviours early. Outdoor activity has a positive effect on long-term memory and cognitive development is influenced by free play and exploration. Thus, the need to engage children with nature at an early age is clear. We propose a funnel of long-term health pathways within which all our lives are shaped. At the top, people live longer with a better quality of life; at the bottom they die earlier and often live years with a lower quality of life.
On the healthy pathway people tend to be active, be connected to others and society, engage with natural places, and eat healthy foods. As a result, they tend to have higher self-esteem and better mood, be members of groups and volunteer more, keep learning, engage regularly with nature and be more resilient to stress. On the unhealthy pathway people tend to be inactive and sedentary, be disconnected from society and social groups, not engage with natural places and eat energy-dense and unhealthy foods. They also tend to have lower SES, be in more stressful jobs, live where active travel to work or school is difficult, have increased likelihood of being mentally ill and be overweight or obese.
It is possible to shift across these pathways, either in a positive direction as a result of adopting healthy behaviours, or in a negative direction as a result of shocks or an accumulation of stresses. Many of the drivers pushing individuals towards the unhealthy lower pathway are very recent in human history: consumption of unhealthy foods, increasing inactivity, atomisation of families and communities, and disengagement from nature. We suggest that the restoration of all these would improve the life of individuals as well as have a positive economic outcome for the whole country.
‘Youth at risk’
We have applied this theoretical construct in a series of studies involving ‘youth at risk’, who are often on the unhealthier pathway. They frequently stay indoors, are inactive, disconnected from society and social groups, don’t engage with natural places, eat unhealthy foods, engage in substance abuse and live in urbanised areas lacking nature. The ‘TurnAround’ project uses nature as the catalyst for long-term behavioural change through a combination of wilderness trails, nature-based activity workshops and one-to-one mentoring. The intensive nine month personal development project significantly improved self-esteem and mood, enhanced connectivity to nature and improved social and life skills, relationships and the ability to make positive choices.
The benefits of green exercise
Thus, green exercise generates a variety of health and social benefits which could lead to healthier communities and reduced public health costs. Its therapeutic properties have implications for direct intervention amongst people who are physically or mentally unwell (green care) and for the redesign of environments (buildings, gardens, urban areas or rural landscapes) so that people can be well (green design). Children should also be encouraged to spend more time engaging with nature and given opportunities to learn in outdoor settings (green education).
So, the take home message is: find some time to incorporate green exercise into your daily routine – even if it’s just a five minute fix a day, as it will have positive effects on your self-esteem and mood. This can easily be incorporated into a busy schedule. For example, parking your car half a mile from where you want to go, and walking the rest. Not eating lunch over the computer but going outside for 5-10 minutes and watching the world. Not driving the children all the way to school or the bus stop – again, stop and walk in. Somehow, we have to find ways to walk outdoors more routinely and make nature contact a daily priority!
If you are interested in reading more about our research please visit our website (www.greenexercise.org) or contact Dr Jo Barton for further information (Tel: +44-1206-873774; Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Web: www.essex.ac.uk/bs/staff/barton/index.shtm)