SAGE probably anticipated this when they advised us to look after our mental and physical health by recommending a daily exercise allowance – one of the few privileges most (although not those shielding) were permitted. We used it to turn, in our droves, to nature. Like many people from my neighbourhood, my exercise of choice was walking in the local woods. I go there regularly but, in lockdown, as my freelance work all but stopped and recovery could be my only focus, there was more time to do so. It felt imperative.
Vienneaua, Hoogh et al concluded that living near green spaces can reduce the likelihood of death from heart and respiratory disease (2017). Even if mediators such as additional exercise or socialising are discounted, green spaces can be good for us physically, emotionally and mentally (Triguero-Mas, Dadvand, Cirach et al). Evidence is found in self-reported mental health tests, reduced need for medication and physiological changes such as impacts on the parasympathetic system. For example, in Japan, a study found that after people had been sitting or walking in forests, cortisol concentrations, blood pressure and pulse rates were all lower (Park, Tsunetsugu, Kasetani et al, 2009). Even the act of looking through a window at natural spaces has been shown to reduce anxiety in people recovering from surgery (Ulrich 1984).
There are established theories for why green spaces confer such advantages (McEwan, Richardson, Sheffield, et al, 2019). The paper ‘A smartphone app for improving mental health through connecting with urban nature’ outlines Kaplan’s Attention Restoration Theory and Ulrich’s Stress Reduction Theory. Due to ancestral memory, we are evolutionarily primed to be in wild spaces – they are wired into our DNA (Kaplan 1995). So, after spending time in nature, we are able to unwind, recover from our mental fatigue and return to the tasks we need to complete with increased focus. Stress Reduction Theory suggests that the increase in parasympathetic nervous activity brought about by being in natural environments reduces stress (Ulrich 1991). However, the smartphone experiment found more evidence to support the role of green spaces in creating positive affect (Frederickson, 2011) and nature connectedness (Mayer and Frantz, 2004). Nature connectedness might sound like a cliché from the hippy era but has been shown to have as significant a benefit to wellbeing as income and education(Capaldi, Dopko, Zelenski et al, 2014).