‘Green exercise’ good for mental health

Here at CABI Headquarters where 'Hand picked' bloggers are based, we are fortunate to be surrounded by trees and fields. So whenever the sun shines at lunchtime (which does happen sometimes, even in England), many of us drag ourselves away from our desks and computers and are able to enjoy a walk in the English countryside. Whether it's the fresh air, the exercise, or simply being away from my computer screen for a few minutes, that lunchtime walk always feels to do me good. So it came as no surprise to read today about research claiming that even as little as five minutes exercise in natural environment can be good for your mental health.

The paper, by Barton and Pretty and published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, looks at what the authors call 'green exercise': activity in the presence of nature. A number of previous studies have shown that a natural environment can increase the benefits of exercise on well-being, but there has been little work on determining just how long is needed to see those benefits. This latest research says that just a few minutes activity in the presence of nature led to mental and physical health improvements.

The researchers from the University of Essex, UK, analyzed activities such as walking, gardening, cycling, fishing, boating, horse-riding and farming. The greatest health changes occurred in the young and the mentally-ill, although people of all ages and social groups benefited. Both men and women had similar improvements in self-esteem after green exercise, though men showed a difference for mood. All natural environments were beneficial including parks in urban settings. Green areas with water added something extra. A blue and green environment seems even better for health, Pretty noted.

From a health policy perspective, the largest positive effect on self-esteem came from just a five-minute dose.

"We know from the literature that short-term mental health improvements are protective of long-term health benefits," Pretty said. "So we believe that there would be a large potential benefit to individuals, society and to the costs of the health service if all groups of people were to self-medicate more with green exercise," added Barton.

A challenge for policy makers is that policy recommendations on physical activity are easily stated but rarely adopted widely as public policy, Pretty noted, adding that the economic benefits could be substantial.

When writing articles for the Leisure Tourism Database on exercise in the past, I've found quite a few papers written from the urban planning and public health perspective on how the environment even in urban areas can be planned to increase the scope for physical activity – whether making it easier to walk or cycle to work or school, or increasing access to parks and other green space to encourage people to walk, run or cycle in the open air. The theory is there, but constraints of the existing environment, and the under-pressure public purse, don't always make it so easy to put into practice.

Meanwhile, I'll try to resist the temptations of the internet in my lunch break, and make sure I get out for those short walks in the Oxfordshire countryside!

Reference: What is the Best Dose of Nature and Green Exercise for Improving Mental Health? A Multi-Study Analysis. Jo Barton and Jules Pretty, Environmental Science & Technology, Publication Date (Web): March 25, 2010. [DOI: 10.1021/es903183r]

Related articles found on the Leisure Tourism Database

Landscape and well-being: a scoping study on the health-promoting impact of outdoor environments. Abraham, A.; Sommerhalder, K.; Abel, T.; International Journal of Public Health, 2010, 55, 1, pp 59-69, many ref.

Outdoor recreation, health, and wellness: understanding and enhancing the relationship. Godbey, G.; Discussion Paper – Resources for the Future (RFF), 2009, 09-21, pp 42, many ref.

Greenspace access, use, and physical activity: understanding the effects of area deprivation. Jones, A.; Hillsdon, M.; Coombes, E.; Preventive Medicine, 2009, 49, 6, pp 500-505, 25 ref.

The effect of "green exercise" on state anxiety and the role of exercise duration, intensity, and greenness: a quasi-experimental study. Mackay, G. J.; Neill, J. T.; Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 2010, 11, 3, pp 238-245

Green exercise in the UK countryside: effects on health and psychological well-being, and implications for policy and planning. Pretty, J.; Peacock, J.; Hine, R.; Sellens, M.; South, N.; Griffin, M.; Journal of Environmental Planning and Management, 2007, 50, 2, pp 211-231, many ref.

The mental and physical health outcomes of green exercise. Pretty, J.; Peacock, J.; Sellens, M.; Griffin, M.; International Journal of Environmental Health Research, 2005, 15, 5, pp 319-337, many ref.

2 thoughts on “‘Green exercise’ good for mental health

  1. neurology emr May 17, 2010 / 10:45 am

    Regular physical activity is one of the most important things you can do for your health.It definitely has a bounty of benefits.Anyway,thanks for bringing this up.Keep on posting!

  2. Kristie July 5, 2011 / 5:33 pm

    I don’t really think about the environment as a mental stimulant, since most of the time I am in a gym when exercising. I think I will try to do a little cardio outside and see how it goes.

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