DISCLAIMER: Please note this is a highlight piece on greenspaces and their perceived impacts on mental wellbeing. I am not a medical doctor or healthcare professional and this is not to substitute advice or instruction from those with professional expertise (I am coming at this from an Environmental Science background). For more information on mental health and where to seek help in the UK please see this detailed list of mental health charities provided by the NHS. Should you be concerned about your mental health or the mental health of a loved one please seek advice from your GP- more info on the UK process here. MIND Infoline: 0300 123 3393; Samaritans 116 123 (correct as of 22/04/21).
Definitions of greenspace are thought to encompass areas of open, undeveloped land with natural vegetation, but also incorporated urban greenspaces including town/city parks and street greenery. These are thought to be health-promoting environments, an association that dates back to (and most likely before) the 1800s with the preservation, creation and accessibility of London open spaces and parks. Furthermore, the World Health Organisation Healthy City Guidelines values a healthy city as one that continually creates and improves physical and social environments. These ideals are being incorporated into modern day wellbeing values. In the 1990s Oxford GP William Bird championed the UK’s first Health Walk Scheme at his practice, which arguably paved the way for collaborations between health care providers and local nature partnerships to promote healthy communities and healthy environments.
Physical activity in a natural outdoor environment is becoming increasingly associated with mental wellbeing. For example a walk or a run in a natural environment/ greenspace is thought to convey greater mental health benefits that the same activity in a synthetic environment e.g. city street, gym, treadmill (Bowler et al, 2010). A 2013 Study suggested that people who use the natural environment for physical activity at least once per week have about half the risk of poor mental health compared with those who do not (Mitchell et al, 2013; Barton and Rogerson, 2017). Approximately 99.9% of our evolutionary history has been spent immersed in the natural environment and therefore it is likely that we are adaptive and responsive to nature (Miyazaki et al, 2011).
With this in mind in 2018 the Royal College of General Practitioners collaborated with parkrun UK to promote the health and wellbeing of staff and patients. Through this, GP practices across the UK are encouraged to link up with their local parkrun/s to become parkrun practices. I’ve seen this first hand through the team at Southport parkrun where local GP and core parkrun volunteer Simon Tobin prescribed parkrun to more than 100 patients in just 2 years, including 15 year old Ellie who has experienced the positive impacts this has had on her daily life. A 2018 study of 8,157 parkrun participants by Glasgow Caledonian University showed that 89% reported a positive impact on their happiness through participating in parkrun.
This idea of time outdoors being beneficial to mental wellbeing can otherwise be known as Ecotherapy- as defined by MIND as a type of therapeutic treatment which involves doing outdoor activities in nature. This can be Green Exercise i.e. physical activity in greenspaces such as running, cycling or walking, or other activities like gardening, caring for animals etc (see the 2018 MIND report for some more inspiration). Ecotherapy and green exercise can be used to help deliver therapeutic interventions as part of preventative mental health intervention, or on a more personal level you might simply find that being outdoors offers you some headspace and improves your mood. However, a crucial element of this can be accessibility to greenspace which evidently is not equal and determined by socio-economic underliers.
So what does this all mean? Here are 5 ways in which time outdoors can help improve mental wellbeing (based on a review of some scientific literature):
REDUCES STRESS/ ANXIETY
Time spent outdoors has been associated with reduced blood pressure and lower levels of the stress hormone Cortisol. Your adrenal glands make and release the hormone Cortisol into your bloodstream as a response to stress. This gives us our fight or flight instinct and whilst in many situations Cortisol is beneficial, we can often find ourselves in high stress mode beyond ‘normal’ bounds. Continuous high levels of Cortisol can impact blood pressure, recovery from exercise, anxiety, depression, libido, sleep and more. The American Institute of Stress has shown that spending time outdoors can help alleviate (but not completely eradicate) these feelings of stress. A 2011 study of Forest Bathing in Japan (where people spend time sitting, lying or walking through a forest) showed a 12.4% and 7.0% decrease in Cortisol Levels and sympathetic nervous activity respectively (sympathetic nervous activity is the body’s involuntary response to dangerous or stressful situations). This combined with a 55% increase in parasympathetic nerve activity (the body’s rest and digestion response) indicated a more relaxed state for those enjoying time in the forest compared to the urban control group (Miyazaki et al, 2011). Similarly, a 2018 Study by the University of East Anglia found that exposure to green space significantly reduces people’s levels of salivary Cortisol, further demonstrating the potential for time outdoors to help reduce stress.
IMPROVES YOUR MOOD AND SELF ESTEEM
Being outdoors is beneficial for individuals’ emotions and ability to reflect on life problems (Barton and Rogerson, 2017). Research highlights that a 90 minute walk in nature can help lower activity in the brain linked to negative thoughts. A 2015 study found that those who did a nature walk had lower activity in the prefrontal cortex, the part of your brain responsible for planning complex cognitive behaviour, personality expression, decision making, and moderating social behaviour. This offered the chance to reduce continuous negative thoughts (although I note not eradicate them). Nature can be a welcome distraction, provide us with a sense of awe (think about the times the scenery has taken your breath away), help us to see the bigger picture, restore better short term memory function and provide us with quiet spaces to reflect or escape. Furthermore, being outside can promote the release of ‘happy’ chemicals like Serotonin and Endorphins (American Institute of Stress).
But you don’t need to spend excessive amounts of time outdoors to benefit from increased mood, just five minutes of exercise outdoors is thought to help boost your self esteem and improve your mood. Bowler’s 2018 study of self reported emotion after spending time in greenspace found that respondents expressed beneficial changes in feelings of energy, anxiety, anger, fatigue and sadness. Thomson et al (2011) also found improvements in social networking, feelings of connectivity, increased appreciation of nature, improvement in self esteem and escape from modern life. Based on this, it is no surprise that time outdoors can be used in a targeted way to deliver structured therapeutic interventions and upstream preventative intervention (Barton and Rogerson, 2017).
HELPS PREVENT BURNOUT
Physical activity in a natural outdoor environment has also been linked to reduced fatigue, increased energy and greater satisfaction (Bowler et al, 2010). The idea that nature can be mentally restorative is captured by Kaplan and Kaplan’s Attention Restoration Theory (abbreviated to ART), which suggests that mental fatigue and concentration can be improved by time spent in, or looking at nature. It is thought that nature offers a soft fascination whereby looking at/ experiencing trees, greenery, clouds, water helps gently occupy your brain, aiding restorative feelings, as opposed to hard fascinations like TV (Basu et al, 2018). Being outdoors can act as restorative escapism, alleviating you of everyday life/worries and allowing you to break free from routine. The mental refresher time spent in greenspaces can help prevent burnout.
INCREASES VITAMIN D AND HELPS ALLEVIATE SEASONAL AFFECTIVE DISORDER
Being outdoors exposes us to doses of natural light which is beneficial for our physical and mental health. Exposure to sunlight can promote the production of Vitamin D in the skin, which is essential for the growth and development of strong bones. Perhaps less well known are the linkages between Vitamin D and mental health, whereby inadequate levels can be linked to worsening mental health conditions and low mood (NHS, 2013). In the UK vitamin D production via sunlight usually occurs on sunny days between April and October 11am-3pm. Vitamin D can also be obtained through diet (especially oily fish) and supplements.
Furthermore, exposure to natural light in winter can help combat the effects of Seasonal Affective Disorder (otherwise known as SAD or ‘winter depression’). It is thought that a lack of sunlight might inhibit the usual functioning of a part of the brain known as the hypothalamus which may affect production of melatonin, production of serotonin and your circadian rhythm (body clock). Getting out and about in daylight during winter is thought to help alleviate SAD (NHS, 2018).
CAN HELP AID BETTER SLEEP
Have you ever found you’ve slept better after a day outside? You’re not imagining it, there are in fact linkages between ‘fresh air’ and sleep. Being outdoors offers greater oxygen exposure, rather than recycled indoor air and more oxygen results in an increase in serotonin, which makes you feel calm, happy and relaxed. Getting more sunlight can also help your circadian rhythms which ultimately impacts sleep.
All information provided is to the best of my knowledge and found through research on the topic from an environmental science perspective. Please see the disclaimer for the numbers for MIND and Samaritans.
Envrionmental Research from London
Running in Winter: Staying Motivatedby Becca Burns / Dec. 18, 2020
As the days get shorter, nights longer and the weather a bit more unpredictable, its natural for your motivation to plummet alongside the winter temperatures. With many gyms on restricted opening hours/ limited access, more and more of us will remain training outside despite the weather taking a wintery turn.
Winter Running Safetyby Becca Burns / Nov. 09, 2020
Winter running throws up many challenges, gone are the long summer days and for many this means training after dark. Sometimes I feel frustrated that I have to think about (or in this case write) about staying safe when running in the dark, we should be able to run and be safe, but the sad reality is that safety is paramount as the days get shorter.
World Ekiden 2020by Becca Burns / Oct. 18, 2020
When a group of people come together to share a dream or goal amazing things can happen. Now more than ever team work, staying connected and supporting each other are extremely important, and whilst many of us can't physically run together we can virtually interact through shared experiences like virtual racing, challenging each other and mutual accountability and motivation.
Being a More Eco-Friendly Runnerby Becca Burns / Jun. 05, 2020
World Environment Day is celebrated each year on the 5th June. It is a day to inspire positive change, highlight key environmental challenges and promote widespread action. The theme for 2020 is Biodiversity. Biodiversity is the collective term for life on Earth. All living things exist within communities, otherwise known as ecosystems, these encompass the oceans, deserts, forests even cities. The combination of these varying ecosystems is biodiversity and humans rely on this to survive.
Tips to Help You Start Running in Lockdown?by Becca Burns / May. 06, 2020
With gyms, pools and communal workout areas closed more and more people are turning to running as a method to get fit or stay fit during the COVID-19 lockdown period. For those new to exercise this can be exceptionally daunting- with footpaths seemingly busier than ever, and for those who already engage in regular exercise but have never run before it can be a tough serving of just how demanding running can be. But that isn’t to put you off!
My Top Tips for Getting into Runningby Becca Burns / Mar. 06, 2020
So you’re ready to start your running journey? Or perhaps you’re not quite ‘ready’ but you’re keen to give it a go? WELCOME to the running community and congratulations on having the bravery to try something new and push yourself out of your comfort zone.
Barbados Marathon Weekend Race Recapby Becca Burns / Jan. 20, 2020
The Run Barbados International Marathon Weekend offers an ideal collection of destination races for anyone looking to enjoy some winter sunshine whilst pursing their running agenda. The Marathon, Half Marathon, 10k, 5k and mile fun run take place as part of the Run Barbados International Marathon weekend with the selection of races over the course of three days in early December. On the 4 December 2019 I headed out on an invited press trip with Visit Barbados to participate in the marathon
A Beginner's Guide to Trail Runningby Becca Burns / Dec. 11, 2019
2019 has been the year I fell in love with trail running. It’s the perfect way to combine my love of running and fitness with the great outdoors. I’m still very new to this world and use the trails as a way to escape my city life, immerse myself in nature and take a break from hardcore training, instead using it as a way to switch off and relax.
FrontRunner Trail & OCR Meet in Munichby Becca Burns / Jul. 15, 2019
I write this from about 30,000 ft on the flight home from an incredible weekend in Munich for the ASICS FrontRunner International OCR and Trail meet up. This is the second time today I’ve been above the clouds. It’s been a weekend filled with plenty of mud, plenty of mountains and some incredible memories made. We’ve also had the chance to really put the incredible new Fujitrabuco pro shoes through their paces.
ASICS FrontRunner Application Questions Explainedby Becca Burns / Feb. 06, 2019
So you're interested in being an ASICS FrontRunner?! That is great news! Before you begin your application, here are some of the most frequently asked questions to help address any queries you may have about the team. Good luck and we can't wait to read your application.
If You Run, You're a Runner!by Becca Burns / Feb. 06, 2019
Back in February 2019 when I was collating some frequently asked questions about the ASICS FrontRunner team ahead of the application phase I noticed the same questions coming up again and again- people questioning if they were a ‘real runner’ because they only ran X distance or X pace, or hadn’t done a marathon, or were new to running.
ASICS Majorca Training Campby Becca Burns / Oct. 21, 2018
During mid October, ASICS Frontrunner team members from 9 countries united in Majorca for the second ASICS training camp of 2018. It was a week of fun, friendships, running, cycling, hiking, stretching, swimming, ice cream and losing Pete on a mountain (twice).
I am a Marathonerby Becca Burns / May. 16, 2018
I am a record breaking world major marathoner. What’s your super power? On the 22 April 2018 I battled the heat to complete the hottest ever London Marathon and cross the finish line after 26.2 miles for the very first time. It wasn’t easy, but one lesson I have learned in life if that you should always chase your dreams, even if that means you chase them for 26.2miles.
Who run the world? Girlsby Becca Burns / Mar. 08, 2018
Queen Beyonce said so herself. Girls run the world! The mothers, step-mothers, grandmothers, daughters, sisters, aunts, cousins, nieces, friends, in laws, wives, girlfriends, here is to strong, independent and incredible women everywhere. Women have been pivotal in the course of history: from Rosa Parks to Emmeline Pankhurst, Malala Yousafzai to Marie Curie. Thursday 8 March 2018 is International Womens' Day, a chance to celebrate the achievements of women the world over.
FrontRunner UK: A Year Onby Becca Burns / Mar. 01, 2018
As we round off our first year of the ASICS FrontRunner UK team and look ahead to welcoming our new team mates at the upcoming launch weekend in Birmingham it is time to reflect on the crazy family and all the adventures being an ASICS FrontRunner brings.
20 Chicken Nuggets and a Shock Half Marathon PBby Becca Burns / Oct. 09, 2017
Half marathoner is a title I’ve recently added to my running CV. Having only completed my first half marathon in Swansea on the 25 June this year, I’m still enjoying the challenges this distance has to offer whilst learning a lot about myself as a runner, my stamina, nutrition tactics, race strategy and that mental battle that comes with distance running. My previous two halves have been steep learning curves and I’ve been lucky to learn from the best. Aaron is a half marathon machine, he’s the Yoda of race strategy and knows how to attack those 13.1miles and throw absolutely everything into it and I’ve been lucky to have him by my side for my previous two halves, but my third outing I was ready to go it alone and push my boundaries, resulting in a shock PB that I never saw coming!
A Northerner Running The British 10K in Londonby Becca Burns / Oct. 18, 2017
Having recently relocated to London I am embracing every opportunity, and when I was offered the chance to run the Virgin Sport British 10K with my fellow ASICS FrontRunner UK team mates Marcus and Corey, I was filled with so much excitement.