Outdoors and health: Science Says

A look back at pandemic containment

Numerous studies testify to the benefits of nature on health. From stress management to open-mindedness, the benefits are numerous, and the applications in medicine just as much. During the pandemic, the deprivation of natural spaces was a sad opportunity to verify this link between health and green spaces.

 

 

With the arrival of the warm seasons, nature is in full swing! Flowers and trees have put on their most beautiful colors to offer us a striking spectacle. Nature lovers have something to rejoice about, it's time for them to take a bath in plants, to go hiking in the mountains, to go bask in the countryside, to simply enjoy this magical landscape.

 

In addition to the pleasure of seeing these landscapes, there is a link between connection with nature and well-being. Nature lovers have already been interested in research, which has noted that these people generally have a certain openness of mind, as well as high sociability. Other studies show that a connection with nature is correlated with positive feelings and an ability to cope with life's problems. Nature also seems to help manage stress and fatigue. Finally, this connection seems to increase memory, attention, imagination and creativity. These health benefits prompted researchers Renate Cervinka, Kathrin Röderer and Elisabeth Hefler to find out more about the benefits of this connection. With their article "are nature lovers happy" published in the journal of health psychology, they seek to enrich the understanding of the link between nature and health.



Mood scale

 

The literature is full of evidence that there is a link between well-being in connection with nature. Here, the goal was to quantify this link as best as possible. For this purpose, a study of Austrians aged 15 to 87 years was conducted, using scales to measure well-being. Among them, scales of life satisfaction, quality of life, in short, scales that allow us to evaluate both the mood of a person and its general character.



Here is the test that Dr. Mayer and Dr. Frantz used to measure the emotional connection between people and nature.

Source: Stephan & Frantz, 2004.



After analyzing these profiles, it seems that people who love nature are satisfied with themselves in life, accept themselves as they are and have a positive personality. Apart from also being able to adapt to stress, they are also people who have a certain resistance to diseases (as there is a positive link between stress management and diseases, as presented in this article on yoga). No link between love of nature and current mood could be found, mainly because the questionnaire was proposed only in urban environments.



Applications to health

 

As shown in this and other articles, there is a clear link between love of nature and well-being. The authors suggest that this fact be used to encourage people to bike or walk for transportation, which could be both an environmental and an individual benefit. In medicine, nature could be used as an alternative medicine to treat mental disorders: with therapeutic gardening, for example, it might be possible to avoid relapses and help recovery.



COVID-19 and the impact on our health due to our changing relationship with nature

 

In more current terms, the studies of Cervinka and colleagues have helped to understand a phenomenon that is affecting the whole world at the moment. A study by Linda Powers Tomasso and colleagues was published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. Pandemic containment has drastically altered our relationship with nature, preventing us from accessing it, when such contact could have helped alleviate the stress of the health, financial and emotional strains. 529 responses to an online survey in America showed that people felt deprived of nature since the Covid, lockdown and inaccessibility to the rest of the world.

 

The study showed a redistribution of time spent outdoors. Of the 529 responses, 23.3% spent much less time outdoors, 18.8% spent a little less time, 20.4% the same amount of time, 22.7% more time, and 14.8% much more time. Regrettably, the pandemic was an opportunity to test the link between love of nature and well-being, and those who spent less time outdoors saw their fulfillment diminish.

 

More than that, accessible places are also important: some people who had the ability to get outside still felt deprived of nature when they couldn't go to the natural areas they wanted, such as parks, nature preserves, beaches, etc.



Bringing green back to the heart of the city

 

In her study on the effects of confinement on people's mental health, Dr. Tomasso proposes solutions to bring nature back into the heart of cities to give the entire population access to green spaces during future pandemics that will result in  confinement. Since transportation was discouraged as a possible source of clusters, many people were unable to travel to natural places. With no parks nearby, their connection to nature was greatly reduced. Therefore, Dr. Tomasso proposes to put green spaces back into urban landscapes everywhere, smaller than huge parks but still within walking distance for the whole population. She also suggests managing the distribution of people in green spaces such as parks, rather than closing them down entirely.

 

In their paper "Nature and mental health: An ecosystem service perspective", researchers Bratman, Anderson and other colleagues focus on what ideas exist and what needs to be done to reintegrate nature into life. The InVEST model, for Integrated Valuation of Ecosystem Services and Tradeoffs, is an open source suite of models to help countries better manage their "green capital." The researchers propose a way forward to harness what we already know about the positive effects of nature on health, so that we can best model these effects in the future. They begin by proposing studies that would analyze natural features that increase mental health. Some tree species more beneficial than others? Faunal diversity? In short, what size and type of nature is most beneficial. Next, studies of people's exposure time in green spaces should be conducted, taking into account maintenance, perceived safety, and opening and closing times. Information on the experience of nature would enliven the model: which senses are important in these moments, sight of course, but how much do sounds, smells enrich our experience? Finally, the model should of course include the effects of this nature on people.



The diagram of the four-step modeling proposed by Bratman and colleagues.

Source: Bratman et al. 2019.



In conclusion

 

Although studies attest to a strong link between well-being and love of nature, this link is difficult to assert, due to the subjectivity of the criteria. However, the pandemic provides a unique opportunity to study it. It is difficult, however, to separate the negative effects due to loss of connection with nature from those due to deprivation of freedom.






References:

 

Bratman, Gregory N., et al. "Nature and mental health: An ecosystem service perspective." Science advances 5.7 (2019): eaax0903.

 

Cervinka, Renate, Kathrin Röderer, and Elisabeth Hefler. "Are nature lovers happy? On various indicators of well-being and connectedness with nature." Journal of health psychology 17.3 (2012): 379-388.

 

Mayer, F. Stephan, and Cynthia McPherson Frantz. "The connectedness to nature scale: A measure of individuals’ feeling in community with nature." Journal of environmental psychology 24.4 (2004): 503-515.

 

Tomasso, Linda Powers, et al. "The Relationship between Nature Deprivation and Individual Wellbeing across Urban Gradients under COVID-19." International journal of environmental research and public health 18.4 (2021): 1511.