By Orna Herr, Communications Officer (Education) at the British Science Association


There are myriad ways in which people’s inner and outer lives are different.

People have different relationships with their bodies, attitudes towards exercise, likelihoods of developing psychiatric disorders, relationships with people in their communities, levels of stress and cardiovascular health, and there are, of course, similarly many factors that affect all these things. But there is one common denominator that impacts them all: time spent outdoors in nature.

Professor Viren Swami, a psychologist at Anglia Ruskin University, spoke at the British Science Festival – appropriately outdoors in Bell Meadow Park, Chelmsford – about the various studies, including his own, that demonstrate the way almost every facet of our lives is improved by spending time taking in natural surroundings.

Although there are many recent studies and ongoing work on this subject, the idea that we need to incorporate green spaces into our communities, is not new, Viren explained. Urban planner Ebenezer Howard founded the garden city movement in 1898, which was based on the idea that countryside spaces need to be included when designing the layout of cities, for the wellbeing of residents. This was a response to the urban overcrowding in parts of the UK like London. Letchworth Garden City and Welwyn Garden City were built in the early 20th century, based on Ebenezer’s plans.

But ensuring people have access to natural environments is not a mantra that we as a society have brought into the 21st century. Today, 83% of people live in urban areas and one in eight households don’t have access to a private or shared garden. In 2017, studies showed that people spent, on average, 94% of their time indoors, compared to 40% in 1983. When you consider the ways in which time spent in nature can benefit us, these statistics are shocking.

Viren talked through the results of a large-scale study that took place in Denmark and included around 1 million people. Participants were asked to fill in a survey which included questions about where they live, how far they were from green space, and their physical wellbeing. The study found that people with less green space coverage in their area had around a 60% higher chance of things like lung cancer and cardiovascular disease, and more chance of using emergency services.

On the more flipside, people with good green space coverage in their local area were found to have better physical and mental health, and experience benefits like higher life satisfaction and community cohesion. The reasons for this are easily explained. When people have access to green space, they’re more likely to use it and therefore be physically fit and healthy. A study found that when people have a beautiful green space between their home and workplace, they’re more likely to walk to work, than cycle or use public transport. Being out in local, communal green spaces also means people will come into contact with other members of their neighbourhood, and therefore feel safer and will have better relationships within their community.

Mental health can also be positively impacted by time spent in nature, in a huge way. A study in Austria, which asked participants at various times of the day where they were and how happy they felt, found that people were happier when they were outdoors, and particularly when they had a view of water.

Natural spaces can be divided into green spaces, such as a park or woodland environment, and blue spaces, locations where you have a view of water. And it turns out, a view of water makes a surprising difference. Studies show that blue spaces are better at improving our psychological wellbeing. Natural spaces, particularly blue spaces, have a positive impact on body image, the way we feel about our body and experience it. There are also theories, including attention restoration theory and stress reduction theory, that find that time in nature can improve cognitive capacity and measurably reduce stress, as well as things like anxiety and depression. There seems to be no limit to the healing powers of nature.

But of course, not everyone has equal access to green spaces. This might be because urban planning in their area has not allowed for it, because of mobility issues around physically going somewhere like a local park, or several other reasons. Which is why Viren and his team at Anglia Ruskin are researching ways to use technology to bring nature to people. They have been experimenting with the effects of XR technology, in which people are immersed in artificial natural environs, and the results have positive implications for the future. The studies showed that these sorts of experiences, as well as viewing purpose-made videos and slides, had the same benefits as time spent out in real nature.

Viren ended his talk with five tips for the audience. The first one, he admitted, may seem simple but it can’t be missed off the list; spend time in nature. It impacts things you might never have realised, including reducing your likelihood of developing an eating disorder or schizophrenia. Second, when you’re out in nature, turn off your phone. Studies found that if you’re looking at your phone, it’s the equivalent of being indoors. Third is to practice green mindfulness. Let yourself be fully immersed in the experience of nature to help prevent feelings like anxiety from overwhelming you. Fourth is to do green exercise. Exercise taken outdoors has more psychological benefits than the same exercise done indoors.

The fifth and final message Viren left the audience with is to introduce children to nature as early as possible. When children develop a connectedness with nature, which happens when they are in natural spaces often, they care about their environment and will be more prone to caring about things like recycling and climate change. With the climate crisis an ever-looming issue, creating a new generation who feel passionately about the preservation of our planet can only be a good thing.