Professor in Health Sciences at the Science Centre of Health and Technology, University of South-Eastern Norway and also Professor at the INN Inland Norway University of Life Sciences.
Her research focus is on physical activity and health, especially in relation to the understanding of physical activity patterns in different population’s groups and salutogenic effects of ‘green exercise’.
[member of the Co-Lab Walk my city free]
Interview by Catarina Reis / Coletivo ZEBRA
In the past decade, more and more studies show that green exercise is good for us in many ways. On the one hand, contact with nature can help us relax and feel good. There are many theories and explanations for why this might happen. For example some says that the emotions we feel when we are in contact with nature are part of survival mechanisms evolved for thousands of years during which forests and savannahs were our natural environments –after all, we started living in cities relatively recently! Other theories says that nature elements such as trees, views of water, and the clouds in the sky, have typical characteristics (shapes, colours, sounds, smells) that have calming/relaxing effects. Finally, more recent perspectives have proposed that contact with nature can increase our feelings of connectedness with the natural world, giving us meaning in life, or that we simply associate nature with positive memories and experiences. Long story short, independently on the reason, there is a large body of evidence showing that being in contact with nature can improve people’s mood and mental health. This is especially important in urban environments, which are typically full of stressors, such as noises, crowds, situations perceived as unsafe, pollution, etc. On the other hand, urban green spaces can encourage people to be more physically active. What’s interesting is that the positive psychological benefits of nature contact and physical activity often supports each other: to visit nature people often have to move (e.g., walking in a park, hiking in a forest, etc.) and when people move in nature they feel good, so they will want to do it again, and again…
As I mentioned above, the relationship between natural environments and active living is two-sided, or rather (like I depicted in one of my papers from 2014) circular: when people are active in nature they feel good, and this will strengthen their motivation to keep being active in nature, and so forth. However, it is important that green spaces and natural environments are safe and accessible to people. If a park or a forest is perceived as unsafe, either because of actual risk of crime or because it “looks” unsafe (poor lighting, poor maintenance of features, tags and litter, etc.), this is one of the factors that will most hinder people to visit that place. Physical barriers are also a central issue: I may have a beautiful park close home, but if a trafficked way separates me from it will be little like I will visit that park often. Lack of clear and well-maintained pathways or other features such as benches and fountains also act as a barrier to the elderly or people with limited mobility. Cultural barriers may also influence the extent people use green spaces and natural environments: in Nordic countries, for instance, outdoor recreations and green exercise is generally seen as a tradition and a value, people are thought to do it during holidays and weekends since they’re children, and it is not considered inconvenient for women to engaging in such activities alone. The results is that 60% of Norwegians do some form of green exercise every week, with no large differences between men and women. The good news is that we don’t need large parks to trigger this process: views of nature in our neighbourhoods (for example, flowerbeds or tree canapés along the streets, views on rivers/lake/the sea, etc.) can also support people being more active. So, if cities don’t have space to build large parks within the city, they can rather integrate more nature into the nature.
In a 2017 study, we look exactly at tis question, comparing the “motivational profile” of people who mainly exercise outdoor in nature as compared with other people who mainly exercise in the gym or participated in organized sports. We could that while the “feel good” effect is rather common to all forms of physical activity, important motivations for green-exercisers were the desire of experiencing nature and getting some “fresh air”, but also the fact that one can do green exercise for free and without having to comply with time-schedules.
Project Co-Lab Walk my city free is a EEA Grants co-financed project initiated in 2020.