The sight of open, untrashed green space while exercising is a balm for our minds and bodies, a group of U.K. researchers has concluded. In a study published in the International Journal of Environmental Health Research (pdf), five groups of 20 subjects exercised on a treadmill while watching a series of scenes projected on a wall.
Four types of scenes were tested—“rural pleasant,” “rural unpleasant,” “urban pleasant” and “urban unpleasant.” The subjects’ blood pressure and two psychological measures—self-esteem and mood—were measured before and after the treadmill sessions. The researchers write:
There was a clear effect of both exercise and different scenes on blood pressure, self-esteem and mood. Exercise alone significantly reduced blood pressure, increased self-esteem, and had a positive significant effect on 4 of 6 mood measures. Both rural and urban pleasant scenes produced a significantly greater positive effect on self-esteem than the exercise-only control. This shows the synergistic effect of green exercise in both rural and urban environments. By contrast, both rural and urban unpleasant scenes reduced the positive effects of exercise on self-esteem. The rural unpleasant scenes had the most dramatic effect, depressing the beneficial effects of exercise on three different measures of mood. It appears that threats to the countryside depicted in rural unpleasant scenes have a greater negative effect on mood than already urban unpleasant scenes.
So: Exercise in itself is a good thing. Exercise in pleasant surroundings is an even better thing. The researchers muse on the societal implications of this:
We conclude that green exercise has important implications for public and environmental health. A fitter and emotionally more content population would clearly cost the economy less as well as reducing individual human suffering. … Thus increasing support for and access to a wide range of green exercise activities for all sectors of society should produce substantial economic and public health benefits. Such support could include the provision and promotion of healthy walks projects, exercise on prescription, healthy school environments, healthy travel to school projects, green views in hospitals, city farms and community gardens, urban green space, and outdoor leisure activities in the countryside.
The interesting thing to me is that none of the subjects actually went outdoors—they simply looked at images of the outdoors. If the mere sight of green space makes us feel better, just imagine what it does when you incorporate all the sensory intangibles of the physical experience: a fresh breeze, fragrant wildflowers, wildlife sightings, clouds rolling past, perhaps a beautiful sunrise or sunset. Maybe for their next study, the researchers will get people off their treadmills and onto their feet or bicycles.
In the meantime, I’m going to bicycle home past a mixture of “urban pleasant” and “urban unpleasant” scenes and on my weekend seek out a nice long, uninterrupted stretch of “rural pleasant.”