Date Published: 2 November 2017

The psychological benefits of being in nature vary with different types of natural environments

A recent study has found that the psychological benefits of time spent in natural environments such as parks, coastlines, nature reserves and wild or lightly managed rural areas varies according to the type of 'natural' or 'green' space.

Researchers from across the south of England have found that the mental health benefits of time spent in coastal and rural areas exceeded the benefits of similar time spent in urban green spaces, such as city gardens and parks. Details of this study by scientists based at the Universities of Surrey, Exeter and Plymouth and at the Plymouth Marine Laboratory have just been published in the journal Environment and Behavior 1.

Working in collaboration with 'Natural England' (the UK government's advisory body for the natural environment in England 2) the researchers studied reports of the experiences of time spent in nature of over 4,500 people who described their visits and tried to evaluate their overall experience.

The study revealed that based on the information gathered from these particular participants:

  • Visits to natural areas of protected or designated status, such as national parks, resulted in improved mental wellbeing.
  • Visits to nature, especially those to protected sites and to coastal and rural green settings, were associated with greater feelings of relaxation and refreshment as well as strengthened emotional connections to the natural world.
  • Visits of more than 30 minutes duration were associated with greater psychological benefits.
  • Reported enjoyment of nature was unrelated to socio-economic status

The observation about the benefits of nature being unrelated to socio-economic status in particular might be used to highlight the importance of free, or at least easily affordable, access to parks, nature reserves and other areas in which people can experience a sense of peace, inspiration or wonder at the natural world.

Dr Kayleigh Wyles, who conducted this research at Plymouth Marine Laboratory and is now a Lecturer in Environmental Psychology at Surrey University, is the lead author of the recent study. She explained that 3:

" We've demonstrated for some time that nature can be beneficial to us, but we're still exploring how and why. Here we have found that our mental wellbeing and our emotional bond with nature may differ depending on the type and quality of an environment we visit.
_ These findings are important as they not only help unpick the mechanisms behind these psychological benefits, but they can also help to prioritise the protection of these environments and emphasise why accessibility to nature is so important
."

Prof Mel Austen, Head of the Sea and Society Science Area at Plymouth Marine Laboratory added that 3:

" It was surprising to learn that the extent of protection of marine environments also affects the extent of mental health benefits that people gain from their interactions with the sea.
_ People's health is likely to become an increasingly important aspect to consider as we manage our coasts and waters for the benefit of all users
."

Although the benefits of experience of and interaction with nature are well documented, according to Surrey University3 this is the first study of its kind to demonstrate that different types of natural environments have different, i.e. more or less beneficial, effects on mental health. It is therefore likely to be a valuable addition to the many published research articles reporting reductions of stress levels in people taking part in studies in which they spend time in nature of one form or another. It might also be of interest to the many and various charity or community-based initiatives involved in helping people through pursuits involving horticulture, landscaping and managing environments for both people and wildlife 4.

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