Do you feel refreshed after going on a hike or spending time at the beach? Or even just taking a stroll through your neighborhood? Well, you’re not alone! Research consistently demonstrates the benefits — for physical and mental health — of time spent outdoors. Many of these effects are not dependent on physical activity but accrue just from spending time outdoors.
Prior research and California State Parks Foundation’s recent study with UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability have illustrated the immense benefits people can receive from being outside and in parks:
Spending time outside results in improvements in mood and overall well-being, increased energy, and relaxation.
Research has shown that spending time in or around green space is associated with better overall measures of mental health, greater overall well-being, and less experience of distress. Survey data of more than 80,000 households, for instance, showed that California teenagers living near green space experienced significantly lower levels of distress, regardless of socioeconomic status. Children living near green space experience fewer emotional and behavioral problems. And time spent in parks has been shown to increase cognitive function on certain measures and may improve children’s long-term cognitive development.
Time spent in parks can contribute to attention restoration, reduce symptoms of attention deficit disorders, improve cognitive function, and reduce problem behaviors in young children.
Two important impacts of green space on mental health are its effects on attention and stress. Many studies have explored parks’ capacity for “attention restoration.” After spending time in green spaces, people report feeling restored and focused, and in fact perform better on tests of attention. Long-term exposure may moderate symptoms of attention disorders. Similarly, psychological and physiological measures both show that people living in areas with more green space experience less overall stress, that spending time in a park produces immediate stress relief, and that access to green space can reduce the impact of stressful life events. This capacity has led some researchers to call green space a “stress buffer” for challenging life events.
Simply living near a park has substantial health benefits. Being in proximity to green spaces is associated with less screen time and increases a person’s likelihood of being physically active.
A study of California children showed that living within 500 meters of park space was associated with gaining significantly less body mass by age 18. Nearby park space is also associated with lower risk of circulatory and cardiovascular disease, lower overall risk of death, and better general health. UCLA’s analysis indicates that California state parks provide a number of physical health benefits for nearby residents: the prevalence of cardiovascular disease and acute asthma episodes are both significantly lower in census tracts located within walking distance of urban state parks than in census tracts located outside these areas.
Park use substantially reduces stress and can reduce the negative effects of stressful life events, increasing a person’s resilience.
Spending time outdoors can be especially important for disadvantaged communities. Members of low-income and minority communities experience more stress and greater health challenges to begin with, and there is some evidence that the benefits provided by park access are actually greater for members of disadvantaged groups. The relationship between green space and behavior, for example, may be stronger in low-income children in urban areas. The more green space people have access to, the less likely they are to experience health inequalities due to income inequality.
This mounting research points to the fact that parks and green spaces provide innumerable mental and physical health benefits. Parks are essential places where people can explore, play, get active, and enjoy fresh air. California State Parks Foundation believes that access to the health benefits that parks and green spaces provide is a right for all Californians to improve their overall wellness.
[Special thanks to Jon Christensen and his team at the UCLA Institute of Environment and Sustainability for their extensive research! The research was supported by a grant from California State Parks Foundation.]