The naturalness of the residential environment has been associated with a lower prevalence of depression, anxiety and stress (Cox et al., 2017). Furthermore, people who have access to green spaces in their neighborhood, use these areas more and tend to be physically more active (Pietilä et al., 2015). Finally, people with a strong connection with nature, spend more time in nature and thus become more exposed to the beneficial effects of natural environments.
In the Flemish provinces in Belgium, accessible nature is unequally distributed. The matter is rising higher on the political agenda, as the links between exposure to nature and health have received stronger evidence.
Three stakeholders based in Flanders, a health insurance provider (CM), a state agency for forest and nature (Regional public authority for Nature and Forests of Nature & Forests, government of Flanders) and a forest advocate organization (BOS+) partner annually to run a campaign to encourage physical movement in natural environments for 30 minutes per day during 30 days.
Since 2017, an assessment of the impact of the campaign on the participants´ subjective health and wellbeing has been conducted for the 30730 campaign. In the autumn of 2018, altogether 1720 participants started the campaign by signing up in the online diary. They were encouraged to report their daily activities through the diary and through the three surveys that were administered throughout the campaign. The impact of the campaign on participants´ subjective health and wellbeing, their connectedness with nature and the level of naturalness of their perceived living and exercising environments, were measured by using a set of validated scales, an objective measure and qualitative questions.
The impact assessment measurement showed that:
- The mental and physical wellbeing and sleep quality of the participants improved as they started participating in the campaign. At the last impact measurement (2 months after the start of the campaign), the participants were still feeling mentally and physically healthier and sleeping better than they were before the campaign.
- At every measuring point, being perceived physically fit was the most important predictor of both physical and mental health and of sleep quality. We also saw that the level of naturalness of the sport and living environments were predictors of mental health (e.g. lower stress, better concentration and inceased happiness).
However, due to the constraints of self-reporting, no control group being included and little blindness in the procedures, these results are merely indicative. Nontheless, interesting insights were gained, e.g. into the way the participants experience their surroundings. Most participants deemed their living and exercising environments rather natural.
At the same time, a majority (70%) of the participants did not report to have to leave their home to start exercising. This suggests that the participants already live in green neighborhoods. Not surprising then, that these participants report being in a rather good state of wellbeing to begin with, as people in greener neighborhoods tend to be more physically active and hence, in better overall health. The most frequently mentioned exercise environment was the forest, followed by or in combination with agricultural landscapes, such as fields and meadows.
Another interesting point was that the majority of the people reported to be spending a lot of time in nature (42%) but wanting to spend even more time there. A third of the participants (32%) did not spend much time in nature but were hoping to have more time for it. About a fifth (17%) of the respondents spend a lot of time in nature according to their reporting, and find this time sufficient. Only a small group (7%) of participants spend a little time in nature and do not need any more time there.
Regardless of a number of constraints in the study set up and execution, the results of the 30/30 campaign show that participation in the campaign can promote mental and physical health and sleep quality. The campaign succeeded to attract and engage a rather homogenous group of highly educated women over 35 year of age. While the respondents had already found nature in their exercise and living environments, majority of them long for more nature in their lives. They sought the encouragement of the campaign to remain physically active regardless of lack of time, tiredness or bad weather conditions, which were reported as the main challenges for exercising. The 30/30 participants also used the campaign to monitor the evolution of their mental and physical health and due to the campaign they became more aware of the importance of movement in nature; how little time (some of them) spend in nature; and of the beneficial effects of physical exercise on physical and mental health.
Cox, D. T. C., Shanahan, D. F., Hudson, H. L., Plummer, K. E., Siriwardena, G. M., Fuller, R. A., … Gaston, K. J. (2017). Doses of neighborhood nature: The benefits for mental health of living with nature. BioScience. Oxford University Press.
Nys, A. 2014.‘Rapport Natuur op wandelafstand. Heeft elke Vlaming een natuurgebied op maximum 1,6 km van zijn woning? Rapport Natuurpunt, Mechelen.
Pietilä, M., Neuvonen, M., Borodulin, K., Korpela, K., Sievänen, T., & Tyrväinen, L. 2015. The relationship between exposure to urban green spaces, physical activity and self-rated health. Journal of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism. Vol 10, s. 44–54.
Schultz PW (2002) Inclusion with nature: The psychology of human-nature relations. In: Schmuck P and Schultz PW (eds) Psychology of Sustainable Development. Boston, MA: Kluwer Academic Publishers, pp. 61–78.