Study: Taking the scenic route to work every day improves mental health

BARCELONA — Taking the scenic route to work every day may do wonders for your mood at the office. That’s because a new study finds that people whose commutes to work take them through wooded areas, parks, or other natural settings are more likely to demonstrate stronger mental health.

Researchers from the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal) surveyed 3,599 workers from four European countries about their typical commutes and overall mental health.

Using the questionnaires, the authors evaluated the mental health of the participants and found that those who enjoyed a daily commute through mostly natural environments recorded, on average, a 2.74 point higher mental health score than people who didn’t travel through more scenic landscapes. Workers who walked, cycled, or got to work through other methods of physical activity and also followed greener trails showed even higher scores.

“From previous experimental studies we knew that physical activity in natural environments can reduce stress, improve mood and mental restoration when compared to the equivalent activity in urban environments,” says the study’s first author Wilma Zijlema in a release. “Although this study is the first of its kind to our knowledge and, therefore, more research will be needed, our data show that commuting through these natural spaces alone may also have a positive effect on mental health.”

To be clear, natural environments needn’t be entirely free of development. The authors defined the settings as “all public and private outdoor spaces that contain ‘green’ and/or ‘blue’ natural elements such as street trees, forests, city parks and natural parks/reserves, and also included all types of waterbodies.”

The researchers note that the findings should encourage leaders of major cities in particular to consider the potentially positive effects of making concrete jungles more green.

“Mental health and physical inactivity are two of the main public health problems associated with the life in urban environments,” says co-author Mark Nieuwenhuijsen, coordinator of the ISGlobal Initiative of Urban Planning, Environment and Health. “Urban design could be a powerful tool to confront these challenges and create healthier cities. One way of doing so would be investing in natural commuting routes for cycling and walking.”

The full study is published in the December 2018 edition of the journal Environment International.