Everyday physical activity in natural settings and subjective well-being: Direct connections and psychological mediators

Research output: Book/ReportDoctoral thesisCollection of Articles

Abstract

Physical activity in natural environments may alleviate stress and enhance mood, both of which are closely connected to longer-term human well-being. From the psychological point of view, these so called ‘restorative effects’ of contact with natural outdoor environments have been explained by two theories emphasising either attention restoration or psycho-physiological stress reduction. Most of the research on visits to different types of environments and human well-being, however, has focused on accessibility and environmental qualities conducive to restoration. Less attention has been paid to psychological aspects such as motives, attentional focus, and engagement with the environment. Furthermore, most research comparing the beneficial effects of physical activity in natural and built environments has been conducted in experimental settings. The applicability of the results of such studies, claiming greater benefit from physical activity in natural outdoor settings than indoors or in built environment, has not been established in everyday life when the activity and its setting can be freely chosen.

This thesis contributes to these discussions by analysing associations between everyday visits to natural settings and mood, restoration, and subjective well-being outcomes, and their psychological mediators. Studies 1-3 are correlational and they are based on Finnish survey datasets, whereas Study 4 summarises two field experiments in a mixed/coniferous forest and an urban park. Analytical methods are different variations of structural equation modelling, comprising several explanatory variables, outcomes, and mediators (when applicable).

The results from Study 1 showed that more frequent physical activity in natural settings was connected to better emotional well-being and better general health, even when controlling for a number of known confounders. More frequent physical activity in built outdoor settings was, likewise, associated with better general health but not with emotional well-being. Physical activity indoors showed no connections to these outcomes.

Study 2, comparing single bouts of physical activity in natural, indoor, and built outdoor settings, found that restorativeness was rated slightly greater in natural settings, while indoor physical activity was associated with better evaluations of selfconfidence. However, recalled restoration did not explain the positive association between the weekly frequency of physical activity in natural settings and emotional well-being.

Regarding visits to natural settings in particular, in Study 3, recalled motives prior to and attentional focus during the most recent visit to nature explained substantial shares of post-visit restoration and emotional well-being. The motive to reduce stress was connected to greater and the motive to be alone was connected to lower postvisit restoration and emotional well-being. In terms of attentional focus during the visit, focusing on the environment and one’s own thoughts and activities, but not on other people, correlated with greater restoration and better emotional well-being.
In the two field experiments conducted for Study 4, walking 4–6 kilometres in natural settings resulted in greater restoration and more positive mood, regardless of whether participants conducted psychological tasks during the walk or not. However, there were some differences in changes in sustained attention but these were mostly between the different types of tasks during the walk.

Overall, these results complement and corroborate experimental studies showing enhancement of mood and restoration following various types of nature visits. They also highlight the important role of psychological aspects such as motivation, attentional focus, and engagement with the environment, which have received less attention in applied research. Future investigations in these topics are encouraged.
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationTampere
ISBN (Electronic)978-952-03-1378-4
Publication statusPublished - 2020
Publication typeG5 Doctoral dissertation (articles)

Publication series

NameTampere University Dissertations - Tampereen yliopiston väitöskirjat
Volume187
ISSN (Print)2489-9860
ISSN (Electronic)2490-0028

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