Spending time in parks could boost emotional wellbeing

Simply spending 20 minutes in an urban park could make you happier, regardless of whether you are engaging in exercise or not, according to new research from the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) Department of Occupational Therapy and published in the International Journal of Environmental Health Research.

The study looked at factors contributing to the improvement in subjective wellbeing (SWB) immediately after a short-term visit to an urban park in an uncontrolled condition. Ninety-four visitors from one of three urban parks—Overton, Jemison, and Cahaba River Walk Parks, in Mountain Brook, Alabama—completed a short questionnaire evaluating SWB with two components, affect and life satisfaction, immediately before and after their park visit. In addition, their level of physical activity was tracked by wearing an accelerometer during the park visit, according to the study abstract. 

Results from the surveys showed a significant improvement in SWB, affect, and life satisfaction scores. The duration of park visits was associated with SWB scores, and independently associated with the improvement in life satisfaction scores, controlling for parks and age, after the visit. Researchers also found a roughly 20-minute park visit predicted the highest overall accuracy improvement in life satisfaction.

Urban parks have been recognized as key neighborhood places that provide residents with opportunities to experience nature and engage in various activities. Through contact with the natural environment and engagement in health-promoting or social and recreational activities in parks, users experience physical and mental health benefits such as stress reduction and recovery from mental fatigue, researchers say.

Hon Yuen, PhD, OTR/L, principal investigator and professor in the UAB Department of Occupational Therapy, said the original intent of the project was to validate previous research findings on the effect of park visits on emotional wellbeing, and evaluate the contribution of choosing to participate in physical activity in the park in relation to emotional wellbeing after the park visit.

"Overall, we found park visitors reported an improvement in emotional wellbeing after the park visit," said Yuen. "However, we did not find levels of physical activity are related to improved emotional wellbeing. Instead, we found time spent in the park is related to improved emotional wellbeing."

Gavin Jenkins, PhD, OTR/L, co-author and chair of the department, said potentially all people can benefit from time in a park. If you cannot be physically active due to aging, disability, or any other limitations, the study implies a person can still gain health benefits.

Yuen said several limitations of the study included the lack of objective data to measure emotional health and confining the study to just three urban parks in a six-month data collection period.