Nature exposure during COVID-19 beneficial for mental health, study finds


Exposure to natural spaces during the first novel coronavirus (COVID-19) lockdown in 2020 was beneficial for mental health, according to a new study carried out by the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (ICTA-UAB) and the Instituto de Saúde Pública of the University of Porto (ISPUP), published in the journal Environmental International.

The study was conducted between March and May 2020 and compared data from Portugal and Spain. To carry out the research, the authors applied an online questionnaire between March 27, 2020 and May 6, 2020, aimed at all citizens aged 18 years old or older, residing in Spain or Portugal. The survey covered aspects related to the frequency and type of exposure people had to natural spaces, public and private, before and during the first confinement, as well as mental health questions to assess levels of stress, mental disorders and somatization symptoms, and sociodemographic issues. Of the more than 3,000 citizens who answered the questionnaire, 1,638 were Portuguese and 1,519 Spanish.

In both countries, during the confinement, there was a significant reduction in the use of public natural spaces, such as beaches, parks and gardens, and an increase in contact with private natural spaces, such as community gardens, urban gardens, and plants, especially in Spain, the researchers said. People living in single-family houses and flats located in cities were the ones who least maintained or increased their exposure to public natural spaces in both countries.

In Spain, where the measures during the period analyzed were much more restrictive and it was forbidden to leave the house and public outdoor spaces were closed, the benefits of exposure to public natural spaces were not as relevant as in Portugal, but it was clear the importance of private natural elements. Among the Spanish citizens who participated in the study, 66 percent decreased the frequency of exposure to public natural spaces compared to 54 percent in Portugal.

In Portugal, those who were confined the longest and those who commuted to work were those who least maintained or increased their contact with the natural public spaces. In turn, those who practiced physical exercise indicated greater exposure to these places. Portuguese citizens who managed to maintain or increase their exposure to natural public spaces showed lower levels of stress compared to those who did not. Likewise, those who contemplated natural spaces from their homes obtained improvements in all the mental health outcomes analysis, including stress, mental disorders, and somatization.

"This study clearly demonstrates the benefit of natural spaces for the mental health of the population in a context of public health crisis," said Ana Isabel Ribeiro, PhD, first author of the study and researcher at the ISPUP, in a statement. "Public authorities and decision-makers could implement measures that facilitate access to natural public spaces, in a safe and controlled manner, in the context of a pandemic. This is particularly important for the most socially and economically vulnerable population groups, and for those who have little access to these spaces in their private context.”

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