Researchers at the University of Glasgow studied the use of natural and non-natural environments for physical activity, like walking, running and cycling. They found regular use of natural environments such as forests and parks seemed to protect against mental ill-health, whilst use of non-natural environments like a gym, did not.
Previous experimental studies have shown that exercise in natural environments has a positive effect on biomarkers and self-reports of stress, on mood and reported levels of fatigue.
The observational study carried out by the Glasgow researchers and published in the journal Social Science & Medicine, was designed to look at whether such effects can be detected in the general population in every day settings.
Data from the Scottish Health Survey 2008, described the different environments in which 1890 respondents were physically active, including woodlands, parks, swimming pools, the gym, the streets and the home. The data also showed how often respondents used each environment and how physically active they were overall. The researchers looked at the association between use of each environment and the risk of poor mental health as measured by the General Health Questionnaire. Only activity in natural environments was associated with a lower risk of poor mental health.
Lead researcher, Professor Richard Mitchell of the Centre for Research on Environment, Society and Health, said: “I wasn’t surprised by the findings that exercise in natural environments is good for your mental health, but I was surprised by just how much better it is for your mental health to exercise in a green place like a forest, than in other places like the gym.
“Woodlands and parks seemed to have the greatest effect, so the message to doctors, planners and policy makers is that these places need protecting and promoting.
“The results suggest that making the decision to exercise in a natural environment just once a week could be enough to gain a benefit. Any additional use may have a bigger effect.”
The study revealed that local pavements or streets was the environment most commonly used regularly for physical activity, followed by home/garden. Around 50 per cent of the sampled group reported using any natural environment at least once in the last month.
The researchers were unable to record the type, duration or intensity of activity conducted in each environment and noted that this was a weakness in the study but was an area that could be looked at in more detail in future.
The research was funded by the Scottish Government’s Rural and Environmental Science and Analytical Services division (RESAS).
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Notes to Editors
The full research paper can be found here: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2012.04.012