Stressed in the city? Reclaim your mental wellbeing on a park bench

LONDON — Living in a big city can feel extra crowded during times of stress. Now a new study finds that heading to the nearest park, sitting on a bench, listening to the birds, and taking in the nature’s offerings can help perk a city-dweller up when feeling down.

Researchers at King’s College London developed a smartphone app called Urban Mind to monitor how an individual’s exposure to natural elements within cities — such as trees, the sky, and birdsong — affected their mental wellbeing.

People sitting on a park bench in the city
Stressed? A new study finds that city-dwellers can reclaim their mental wellbeing by heading to the nearest park, sitting on a bench, listening to the birds, and soaking in nature’s offerings.

For the study , the app monitored 108 people (30 men, 78 women between the ages of 20 and 67) for a week. Participants completed a combined 3,013 assessments during the study period. Each assessment asked the user several questions about his or her current environment and overall momentary wellbeing. The researchers also tracked the users with GPS geotagging.

The authors found both immediate and time-lagged associations between natural areas and mental wellbeing. They primarily focused on trees, the sky, and birdsong. When participants were near these natural elements, they usually experienced an upswing in general mental wellbeing. This boost usually lasted for several hours after participants were exposed to nature.

“These findings suggest that short-term exposure to nature has a measurable beneficial impact on mental wellbeing,” says study co-author Dr. Andrea Mechelli, in news release.

The researchers also wanted to know if there was a difference between individuals more predisposed to developing mental health issues and those at normal risk of mental illness when they interacted with nature. According to their findings, the beneficial effect of nature increased for those at higher risk of mental illness.

“The interaction of this effect with trait impulsivity is intriguing, as it suggests that nature could be especially beneficial to those individuals who are at risk of poor mental health,” says Michelle. “From a clinical perspective, we hope this line of research will lead to the development of low-cost scalable interventions aimed at promoting mental health in urban populations.”

Such interventions could include cities investing more funds into creating additional green spaces for residents or employees to visit during a lunch break or stop off to wind down after a tough day at the office.

The full study was published this month in the journal BioScience.

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