Why we should get out more: evidence from over four decades of research

In this post Osbert Lancaster and I take a quick look at some of the ways outdoor experiences benefit us, society and the environment.

We know that spending time outdoors is good for our health and wellbeing. But it also has other benefits that often get overlooked. Outdoor experiences can help us to live more fulfilling lives, they can promote positive social behaviours and they can encourage us to live in more environmentally friendly ways.

We’ve probably all felt more relaxed and peaceful just from heading into a quiet park away from the bustle of a busy street, or walking along a beach watching the waves on the sand. But these everyday feelings of relaxation and tranquility are now backed by decades of research from across the world. Being outdoors is a seriously good way to relieve stress, restore our ability to concentrate and reduce anxiety.

Prof Jules Pretty and colleagues at the University of Essex have not only researched what they call ‘green exercise’ themselves, they have also reviewed the work of many other researchers. Their findings are clear: “physical activity in the presence of nature improves health and well-being.” 1 Whatever your age, gender, ethnicity or social class, exercise outdoors is good for you – far beyond just exercise on its own.

It’s not only being active outdoors that helps. Just living in places with more green space is healthy. For example, a study in the Netherlands by Maas and others, found that conditions including heart disease, back problems, respiratory infections, migraines, cancer and diabetes, were all lower in areas with more green space. The same applied to depression and anxiety disorders. 2

Many studies have shown that even relatively short periods in natural, rather than manmade, environments boost what scientists call ‘hedonic’ wellbeing – just feeling good. Spending more time outdoors, more often, helps us feel better and be more satisfied with life. Capaldi and colleagues write: “a plethora of research shows that connecting with nature is associated with improved emotional functioning and satisfaction with life.” 3

Of course, there’s more to life than being healthy and feeling good. We also look for meaning in our lives and seek a sense of autonomy. Nature is important here too. Capaldi summarise the work of many researchers, showing that outdoor experiences lead people to feel their lives are more meaningful. They also help them make better life-choices, experience greater personal growth, be more socially competent, and to feel more fully alive and energised.

Being outdoors has long been recognised as a boost to creativity. Not just for artistic endeavours but also for coming up with useful ideas and innovations. A study in Denmark interviewed creative professionals and found that time in natural environments was important to their creativity. 4

Humans are social animals so it’s not surprising that being outdoors, in the place where we have evolved for most of our history, influences the way we interact with each other. Research has shown that exposure to nature leads people to be more kind and helpful to others. Likewise, the more connected we feel to nature, the more likely we are to be empathetic and to take other people’s perspectives. 5

It’s long been argued that outdoor experiences lead people to develop more positive attitudes to the environment, making them more likely to behave in ways that are good for the environment. A recent review of four decades of research by Rosa & Collado confirms that “experiences in nature during childhood and adulthood are positively linked to pro-environmentalism”. 6

The benefits of getting outdoors are clear – for our individual health, and for the way we treat each other and our environment. If you would like to understand why the outdoors is so beneficial and how outdoor experiences can be deliberately designed and facilitated to increase the benefits, check out my Ecopsychology Online course Ecopsychology Online Course.

For beautifully facilitated outdoor programmes in the UK, check-out Natural Change. For experiences in New Zealand, join my mailing list for further updates!

References

  1. Pretty, J., Rogerson, M., & Barton, J. (2017). Green mind theory: How brain-body-behaviour links into natural and social environments for healthy habits. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 14(7).
  2. Maas, J., Verheij, R. A., de Vries, S., Spreeuwenberg, P., Schellevis, F. G., & Groenewegen, P. P. (2009). Morbidity is related to a green living environment. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 63(12), 967-973.
  3. Capaldi, C., Passmore, H.-A., Nisbet, E., Zelenski, J., & Dopko, R. (2015). Flourishing in nature: A review of the benefits of connecting with nature and its application as a wellbeing intervention. International Journal of Wellbeing, 5(4), 1-16.
  4. Plambech, T., & Konijnendijk van den Bosch, C. C. (2015). The impact of nature on creativity - A study among Danish creative professionals. Urban Forestry and Urban Greening. 14(2), 255-263.
  5. Capaldi, C., Passmore, H.-A., Nisbet, E., Zelenski, J., & Dopko, R. (2015). Flourishing in nature: A review of the benefits of connecting with nature and its application as a wellbeing intervention. International Journal of Wellbeing, 5(4), 1-16.
  6. Rosa, C. D., & Collado, S. (2019). Experiences in nature and environmental attitudes and behaviors: Setting the ground for future research. Frontiers in Psychology, 10(APR), 1-9.
David Key © 2017

Photo: David Key © 2017

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *