Green spaces for healthier, happier lives

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DIY and how-to

There’s no doubt: people who spend time outside in green, natural spaces tend to be happier and healthier than those who don’t. 

For example, a study conducted at Stanford University found that young adults who walked for an hour through campus parks were less anxious afterwards and performed better on memory tests than if they had walked along a busy street.

But researchers have also wondered whether these benefits are possibly due to the physical exercise or exposure to sunlight associated with being outdoors.  Another study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health set out to refine these tests by asking participants to focus on pictures of the outdoors instead of experiencing the real thing.

For the study, a group of researchers at the VU University Medical Centre in Amsterdam connected university students to sensors to monitor electrical activity in the heart and then showed them photos on a computer screen. Half the pictures were of cityscapes, filled with buildings and parked cars; the rest were simple green spaces, like tree-lined pathways in natural settings (not spectacular shots of nature).

Lower heart rates

After viewing the photos, the students were given a series of increasingly difficult computerised maths tests, specifically designed to raise their stress levels. Afterwards, the students looked at the pictures, took the test again, and then looked at the pictures a second time. When the students saw green spaces after the maths stress tests, their parasympathetic nervous systems kicked in, lowering their heart rates. (Pictures of the cityscapes had no effect.)

According to lead researcher Magdalena van den Berg, the study suggests that ‘‘short durations of viewing green pictures may help people to recover from stress. Finding an effect with regard to such weak visual stimuli — no spectacular views, no sound, no smells etcetera — is surprising.” 

The effects would probably be magnified, she says, if someone could visit nature or even look out a window and see real greenery. So if you can’t do that, set your screen saver to show a picture of trees, or place a few pot plants around your workstation.

(Source: The New York Times)

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