A new study led by the Institute of Global Health of Barcelona (ISGlobal) found that people who travel daily through natural environments report better mental health. This is the main conclusion of an investigation based on questionnaires answered by about 3,600 participants from four European cities and published in Environment International.
The work was carried out under the PHENOTYPE project, on the positive effects of exposition to natural environment outdoors in the health of typical populations of different regions of Europe. The 3,599 participants from Barcelona (Spain), Doetinchem (Netherlands), Kaunas (Lithuania) and Stoke-on-Trent (United Kingdom) answered a questionnaire about their transport habits and their mental health.
The statistical analysis showed that respondents who traveled daily through natural environments had on average a mental health score of 2.74 points more than those who traveled less frequently through natural settings.
This association was even stronger among people who reported practicing active transport (i.e. walking or cycling). In this case, natural environments were defined as all public and private outdoor spaces that contain “green” or “blue” natural elements, such as trees in the streets, forests, urban or natural parks, and all types of waterbodies were also included.
More active transport
Other results showed that there were more people that reported practicing active transport among those who also reported traveling daily through natural environments. However, the quality of the natural environments in which the displacements occurred did not influence the results.
“From previous experimental studies, we knew that practicing physical activity in natural environments can reduce stress, improve mood and mental restoration, compared to an equivalent activity performed in urban environments. Although this work is the first of its kind that we have records; and therefore, more research will be needed. Our data show that the mere act of moving through these natural spaces can have a positive effect on mental health,” affirms Wilma Zijlema, ISGlobal researcher and first author of the study.
“Mental health and physical inactivity are two of the main public health problems associated with life in urban environments. Urban design could be a powerful tool to face these challenges and create healthier cities. One way to do this would be to invest in natural transport routes for cycling and walking,” concludes Mark Nieuwenhuijsen, coordinator of the Urban Planning, Environment and Health Initiative of ISGlobal who participated in the study.