Exposure to nature during COVID-19 lockdown has been beneficial for mental health

A study conducted by the Institute of Environmental Sciences and Technologies of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (ICTA-UAB) and the Instituto de Saúde Pública of the University of Porto (ISPUP), concludes that exposure to natural spaces during the first COVID-19 containment in 2020 has been beneficial for the mental health of Spanish and Portuguese citizens.

Research shows that in Portugal, during the first confinement, people who maintained or increased contact with natural public spaces, such as parks and coastal areas, or who could contemplate these spaces from their homes, exhibited levels stress, psychological distress and psychosomatic symptoms.

In Spain, those who maintained or increased contact with private natural spaces, such as houseplants or community green spaces, exhibited lower levels of stress and psychosomatic symptoms. This could be due to the fact that Spain adopted more restrictive measures for foreign traffic during the period analyzed.

The research Nature exposure and mental health outcomes during the COVID-19 lockdown. A comparison between Portugal and Spain, published in the journal International environment, was conducted between March and May 2020.

Dr Ana Isabel Ribeiro, researcher at ISPUP and first author of the work with Margarita Triguero-Mas from ICTA-UAB declares that “we decided to study whether natural, public and private spaces had a beneficial effect on mental health of the Portuguese and Spanish citizens, helping them to better cope with the negative effects of confinement. “For her part, Margarita Triguero-Mas adds that” the people around us and ourselves have told how much we have missed the park that we walked through when we went to the office or the beach walk with our dogs, so we wanted to check to what extent contact with natural spaces was an important factor during containment.

Several previous articles have also shown the positive impact of exposure to natural spaces on mental health, that is, by reducing stress, anxiety and improving overall psychological well-being. “Taking into account what is described in the literature, we wanted to assess whether people who benefited from greater exposure to natural spaces during the first COVID-19 containment had better mental health indicators than those who did not. had no contact with natural areas, ”says Dr. Ribeiro. At the same time, they wanted to determine whether exposure to private natural spaces, such as gardens, orchards or plants, was more beneficial for Spanish citizens than for the Portuguese, given that Spain was enforcing measures stricter to restrict mobility than Portugal.

To carry out the research, the authors applied an online questionnaire, between March 27 and May 6, 2020, intended for all citizens aged 18 or over, residing in Spain or Portugal. The investigation focused on aspects related to the frequency and type of exposure of people to natural spaces (public and private), before and during the first confinement; mental health questions to assess stress levels, mental disorders and symptoms of somatization, and socio-demographic issues. Of the more than 3,000 citizens (n ​​= 3,157) who responded to the questionnaire, 1,638 were Portuguese and 1,519 Spanish.

In both countries, during containment, 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. People living in single-family homes (detached house) and apartments located in cities are those who have maintained or increased their exposure to public natural spaces the least in both countries.

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

In Spain, people who were able to continue to devote or increase the time devoted to the maintenance of their plants had lower stress levels, while those who were able to continue to enjoy or increase the time spent on their plants. Use of community green spaces had lower rates of somatization.

In Spain, it is remarkable that the people who maintained or increased the care of indoor plants the least were people over 65, those who lived with several people at home or those who were in a second home during the period. confinement. In contrast, the people who maintained or increased the maintenance of houseplants the most were those with children, but without dependent adults.

In Portugal, those who have been confined the longest and those who commute to work are those who have maintained or increased their contact with natural public spaces the least. In turn, those who exercised reported greater exposure to these places. Portuguese citizens who were successful in maintaining or increasing their exposure to natural public spaces showed lower stress levels than those who did not. Likewise, those who viewed natural spaces from their homes saw improvements in all of the mental health outcomes analyzed: stress, mental disorders and somatization.

“This study clearly demonstrates the interest of natural spaces for the mental health of the population in a context of public health crisis”, emphasizes Ana Isabel Ribeiro. “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, ”she underlines.

In addition, Dr Triguero-Mas adds that “our study is particularly important for cities like Barcelona, ​​where new buildings rarely have balconies or community spaces with vegetation. It is important to reassess how the renovation of buildings or new houses can be healthier spaces that promote and prevent the deterioration of the health of the people who inhabit them ”.


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