Birkenhead Park in Merseyside, England—the first publicly funded civic park in the world—opened in 1847 and inspired the design for New York’s Central Park, which was established a decade later. 

Our nineteenth-century forbears clearly grasped the importance of open green spaces for urban dwellers, but it wasn’t until 2003 that the term “green exercise”—physical activity undertaken in green surroundings—came into being. The phrase was coined by researchers at the University of Essex, England, who had begun to document the physical and mental health benefits of green exercise.

For example, lunchtime walks in nature-based environments—even your local park —can improve sleep quality, compared to a walk through a built environment. That was the main finding of a small preliminary study at the University of Essex, England, published in 2016. At lunchtime on two separate occasions, 13 participants walked a 1.8 km route through a built or a natural environment. Physiological readings taken during sleep showed that a lunchtime walk in nature provided a greater restorative effect compared to an equivalent walk in a built environment.

Another green environment is the golf course, and last year a study headed by Dr. Andrew Murray of the Physical Activity for Health Research Centre at the University of Edinburgh, showed that golf—a sport played by around 55 million people in 206 countries worldwide—may confer distinct physical and mental benefits. Our evolutionary past may pre-dispose us to respond positively to green spaces like the ones our ancestors grew up in. Additionally, green spaces such as golf courses promote sociability, which is associated with improved mental health.

Based in Limerick, Ireland, Dr. Terry Lynch is a physician, psychotherapist, mental health educator and best-selling author. Dr. Lynch told Thrive Global: “Many people find that being in nature has a beneficial effect on their emotional and mental health. Walking and taking exercise in green environments provide a combined benefit of the exercise and the therapeutic effect of green environments on one’s senses. People often report that walking and being in such environments—the sights, sounds (including silence), and smells—brings them into better contact with this environment and with themselves.”

Dr. Lynch also notes that the benefits of exposure to natural environments often continue beyond the contact, with individuals often reporting a spiritual aspect to their experience—an increased connection with themselves and the earth. This, he says, is “a healthy counterpoint to a world so filled with busy-ness, stimulation and noise.”

Further exploring the nature of how well-being can be enhanced by exposure to green environments, University of Essex researchers in July this year published the Green Mind Theory (GMT), which links the mind to brain and body and connects the body to natural and social environments. GMT, they write, “draws on understanding derived from neuroscience and brain plasticity, spiritual and wisdom traditions, the lifeways of original cultures, and material consumption behaviours.”

After over a decade of study, the researchers found that, in many different circumstances, “physical activity in the presence of nature improves health and well-being.” The results were consistent across all demographics—”all ages, genders, ethnicities, and social classes respond positively to green exercise.”

In June of this year, Dr. Irene Rea of Queen’s University Belfast reviewed aspects of healthy aging, which included exercising in green environments, and provided evidence showing that “exercising outdoors was associated with greater feelings of revitalization, positive engagement, increased energy, with decreases in tension, anger, and depression.”

The evidence is clear that green environments play an important role in making us feel good, both mentally and physically. Both local and national governments should recognise that providing green spaces, especially for those living in urban areas, is a valuable public health measure to be promoted with enthusiasm.