Can visiting a natural space result in feelings of restoration, such as calmness, relaxation, refreshment, or revitalization? Established literature corroborates the intuition that there are restorative health benefits to visiting natural spaces, but these findings are complicated and mixed. Previous theoretical work with Attention Restoration Theory (ART) and Psychophysiological Stress Recovery Theory (PSRT) have hypothesized that visiting nature can lead to changes in emotional states and vitality. Researchers have employed a variety of methods in both laboratory and field settings to show that natural environments have the capacity to cognitively rejuvenate positive energy and reduce negative emotions for individuals. These emotional changes vary, however, in studies that target different types of natural environments and among people of different demographics. Yet, without a single sample large enough to also control for visitor profile confounds, it's difficult to make conclusions about how visiting specific natural spaces might affect restorative emotions.
To address this research gap, the authors used a subsample from a national survey conducted between 2009 and 2011 by the British government's Natural England department. Called the Monitoring Engagement with the Natural Environment (MENE) survey, the questionnaire consists of in-home, face-to-face interviews with 142,031 individuals. For this study, a subsample was selected of 4,255 participants who had spent time outdoors in the last week and who also had been asked about feelings of restoration associated with one of those outdoor experiences. When participants were asked if they had spent time outdoors, they were instructed, “by out of doors, we mean open spaces in and around towns and cities, including parks, canals, and nature areas; the coast and beaches; and the countryside, including farmland, woodland, hills, and rivers. This could be a few minutes to all day. It may include time spent close to your home or workplace, further afield, or while on holiday in England. However, this does not include routine shopping trips or time spent in your own garden.” Just over half the participants were female; ages ranged from 16 to over 65.
Outdoor experiences were further categorized into three broad areas: an urban green or open space, a rural or countryside area, or a coastal environment. The researchers collected demographics, such as gender, age, and socioeconomic status (SES). Additionally, the researchers examined visit characteristics, such as other accompanying visitors and the types of engaged activity while at the nature space. If the participant had more than one outdoor experience in the last week, one of these experiences was randomly selected for collecting these additional visit characteristics. The main measure examined in all participants was recalled restoration, which was characterized in the survey as the amount that a nature visit “made me feel refreshed and revitalized” and “made me feel calm and relaxed.”
Generally, previous literature findings were replicated in that visits to nature were associated with greater recalled restoration. Mean visit time to nature spaces across all participants in the sample was approximately 160 minutes. Significant differences between types of nature spaces were found for recalled restoration after controlling for demographic and visit characteristic confounds. Visits to urban green spaces were associated with less recalled restoration than rural green spaces. Coastal spaces were associated with the highest amounts of recalled restoration. Exercise areas, such as playgrounds or playing fields, were measured to have the lowest recalled restoration values across all groups. The authors posited this may be, in part, because visits to these locations were often with children; however, after controlling for that factor, the researchers still found this difference, which suggests that other factors may also be at work.
No significant differences were measured when controlling for either gender or SES; however, the youngest age group (participants between the ages of 16 and 24) experienced relatively less recalled restoration from all nature spaces than participants in the older age groups. This finding is in keeping with previous research suggesting that restorative properties of nature may be lowest for those in their late teens. The authors speculate this may be because those in their late teens often use woodlands and natural spaces for less-restorative activities, such as getting away from adults and partying. Previous research has shown that young adults tend to find nature more restorative again as they get older, especially if they had positive experiences in nature as children.
Among activity types at all nature spaces, eating or picnicking, visiting an attraction, playing with children, or vigorous exercising were all associated with only slightly less recalled restoration than merely walking. The researchers emphasized their surprise at how relatively little direct effect the activity type had on recalled feelings of restoration. The starting point for the activity (e.g., home, work, or vacation), the distance traveled, and the mode of transportation also had no effect on restoration. This may be because 94% of visits started from home and 71% were less than five miles from the starting point; this finding highlights the importance of local green spaces.
This study provides a perspective on the restorative value of visiting nature spaces. By using a large sample size and controlling for confounds in visitor profiles and activity types, this study offers a more nuanced depiction of restorative feelings across different types of nature spaces. Limitations in prescreening, however, mean that this study lacks the data about visitors' emotional states prior to visiting nature spaces, which might influence the findings. Additionally, study participants are self-selecting the nature visits, meaning that the participants who might most benefit from restorative nature experiences are precisely the ones who spend time in such spaces. Restorative feelings were also only measured for one visit, meaning there could be differences in restorative feelings from multiple visits to such natural spaces. Overall, this study provides a more precise link between nature visits and restorative health benefits, which could influence policy makers in deciding which types of nature spaces receive funding or attention for maintenance. Outdoor and health educators could also use study findings to better advise individuals on the best practices in engaging with nature spaces for restorative purposes.
The Bottom Line
<p>Intuitively, people have long believed that taking the time out of a busy schedule to visit a natural space may have restorative health benefits; recently, an increasing number of studies are supporting this assertion. Although the type of activity that people do outside—such as casually walking, vigorously exercising, or leisurely picnicking—seems to have little effect on the overall sense of restoration that they derive, the type of natural area visited does seem to be important. Certain types of natural areas may offer more restorative benefits than others. Coastal areas, for example, may engender more restorative feelings, while urban green spaces may produce relatively less (although still a significant amount). Yet, despite these differences, urban green spaces remain essential—and are perhaps growing in importance— because of the increasing numbers of people who live in urban areas and, therefore, the enhanced proximity of these urban green spaces.</p>