Walking in a winter wonderland brings psychological benefits

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Walking in a “winter wonderland” can lead to improvements in psychological wellbeing — specifically, boosting one’s body image. This is the conclusion of a study by researchers from the Medical University of Silesia in in Katowice, Poland and the Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, England, They demonstrated that the benefits of spending time in nature are not just derived in green spaces like parks and forests and “blue environments” like alongside coasts and rivers.

The research was undertaken by psychologist Dr Kamila Czepczor-Bernat of the Medical University of Silesia, and her colleagues.

Dr Czepczor-Bernat said: “A body of evidence now exists showing the nature exposure — living close to, frequenting, or engaging with environments such as forest and parks — is associated with a range of physical and psychological wellbeing benefits.

“However, in contrast to previous studies which have focussed on the impact of blue and green natural environments on body image outcomes, ours is the first to show the positive impact on body appreciation from spending time in snow-covered environments.”

In the study, Dr Czepczor-Bernat and her colleagues recruited 87 women — of average age 24 years — who took part in the research together in small groups.

Each of the participants took a 40-minute walk in snow-dusted woodlands in the Silesia region of Poland. Before the excursion, the subjects completed surveys measuring their feelings of both connectedness to nature and self-compassion.

Furthermore, the volunteers also each completed a measure of their level of body appreciation both before heading out on the walk and on their return.

The researchers found that spending even a short amount of time in nature resulted in greater levels of body appreciation among the participants.

Moreover, the walks led to greater improvements in body appreciation among those participants that scored higher in measures of “self-compassion”.

In their paper, the team wrote: “Overall, this finding is consistent with previous work showing that time spent on an allotment, in a designed greenspace, at the beach, and in botanic gardens significantly elevated state body appreciation scores in populations from diverse national settings.”

Alongside being the first study to demonstrate that white, snowy landscapes can be as beneficial as other natural environments, the research is the first to show that the rewards of nature can be reaped in small groups, rather than just individually.

The team added: “It is possible to explain these findings by drawing on attention restoration theory, which suggests that natural environments have the capacity to restore depleted psychological resources.

“More specifically, it has been suggested that natural environments may offer opportunities to promote positive body image by restricting negative appearance-related thoughts and supporting speedier recovery from threats to body image, thus turning negative body image states into positive ones.”

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Paper author and social psychologist Professor Viren Swami of the Anglia Ruskin University said: “Natural environments help to restrict negative appearance-related thoughts and shift attention away from an aesthetic view of the body and towards greater appreciation of the body’ functionality.

“Positive body image is important not only in its own right, but has other beneficial effects, including more positive psychological well being.

“Our findings demonstrate the importance of ensuring that everyone can access restorative natural environments, which may be a cost-effective way of promoting healthier body image, and highlight that there are significant benefits of being outside in nature, whatever the weather.”

The full findings of the study were published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

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