Nature has beneficial effects that help us cope with stress at work, according to new research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). The research, conducted by Dr Valerie Gladwell at the University of Essex, highlights the power of the ‘great outdoors’ to improve both physiological and psychological wellbeing.
The modern era has brought a decline in levels of physical activity, accompanied by huge increases in physical disability and diseases, as well as an increase in cases of mental ill-health.
Dr Gladwell, explains: “Today, not only are rates of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease on the rise, but levels of potentially damaging psychological stress are also reportedly higher.”
The value of nature has long been considered to be advantageous to human health. Early examples of this come in the form of urban parks established by wealthy philanthropists during the 19th century, and in the gardens incorporated into hospital designs.
“Our research supports this, demonstrating an association between improved health outcomes and engagement with surrounding ‘green space’,” she said.
A series of five studies were set up by the researchers to explore the physiological and psychological benefits of nature, and the response to stress during and after viewing nature in simulated and real environments. Individual perceptions of green space surrounding home and work environments were examined, as well as how individuals interact with green space and its impact on their health.
One specific study measured how a group of people recovered from a stressful task after they had viewed slides showing scenes of nature. Results showed that recovery from the stressful task was improved compared to when the scenes were of unpleasant built-up environments.
In a separate study, a walk in “green” environments at lunch time enhanced restorative sleep the following night. Furthermore, if individuals walked regularly in a “green” environment, they showed significantly lower levels of blood pressure and perceived stress after just eight weeks.
“It’s widely accepted that nature is good for us, but we’re still trying to delve into what it does for us and why,” concludes Dr Gladwell. “However, our research has shown that ‘green’ environments can be an effective stress buster. If we can encourage more people to enjoy the great outdoors it may help increase their levels of physical activity and, therefore, could also be a powerful tool to help fight the growing incidence of cardiovascular disease.”