Science Says ‘Go Outside and You’ll Feel Better!’

I recently came across a Reuters story on a University of Essex study discussing the impact of spending time outside on mental health. ‘Five minutes in the green can boost self esteem,’ the title says. Now, this is actually a study supported by my own anecdata: When I go outside, I do indeed experience a mood improvement, and I know a lot of other folks who feel the same way. So this post isn’t about picking this study apart.

It’s about looking at the framing of the study, because that’s what I think is interesting.

What the study showed is that spending five minutes in a green area, especially if it has water, can have mental health benefits for people, although young folks and people with mental illness experienced the most significant changes. And the way I’m seeing the study reported, the burden is being placed solely on the individual. You need to go outside. You need to spend more time in green spaces. You need to make improvements in your mental health. It only takes five minutes! Get with the program! (P.S. It would be nice if you exercised while you were at it because otherwise you might get fat.)

Hmmm.

Are there maybe some obstacles to spending time in green spaces? Let’s explore some of them, shall we?

What about accessibility? Let’s assume you’re a wheelchair user living in an urban area. Can you access a park via public transit? If you get to a park, are the paths navigable? Are you a scooter user? Is it possible for you to get to a park on your own, or do you need a buddy to manhandle your scooter onto a bus for you since a lot of buses are poorly equipped for scooters? Do you use a service animal? Are you going to get hassled on your way to/while in the park?

What about time? If you have odd working hours or you’re caring for children or you’re relying on public transit in a city with poor transit? How are you going to make the time to get outside if the nearest park is a 30 minute trip?

What if you have multiple chemical sensitivity and a park is using pesticides?

What if you have social anxiety disorder that makes it difficult to leave your home?

What if a park is in an unsafe area?

What if…?

The framing of this study kind of exemplifies the medical model of disability; it’s all about things you, the individual, need to do. You are disabled by yourself, not by the world around you. Here in the US, there’s an especially strong emphasis on personal responsibility that I see coming up in disability narratives a lot. It’s that emphasis that says we should cut funding to social programs for people with disabilities because, well, they should take responsibility for themselves! It’s that emphasis that says that accommodations are too much of an obstacle for businesses because, well, people with disabilities should be able to sort it out on their own! The burden is on the individual to figure it out.

What I highlighted when I discussed some of the obstacles to ‘just’ getting into a park for five minutes is the social model. These are failings of society, not you as a person. Being told to ‘just’ go to the park for five minutes a day isn’t enough. You may already be a fan of trees and green spaces and be unable to get to the park because society has decided to make that difficult for you. What we should be concluding from this study is not ‘hey, people should go to the park more!’ but ‘hey, we should make it possible for people who want to go to the park to do that! That would be awesome!’

And what the reports I’ve seen on this study remind me of, over and over, is that we live in a society where disability is deemed to be your fault and your responsibility. Accommodation is not viewed as a social responsibility, full inclusion of people with disabilities is not regarded as a priority, and making spaces welcoming and friendly to as many human beings as possible simply isn’t important. What is important appears to be looking for yet another way to remind people that their disabilities are their own responsibility and that if they just did more maybe they wouldn’t be so disabled.

If you’re the park-going type, what obstacles do you experience in your community when it comes to accessing parks and other green spaces?

21 Comments

  1. Comment got long; the end has possibly triggery sentence.

    When I’m home, there are very few obstacles to me being outside. We have both a playground and a greenbelt in my parents’ neighborhood; behind my sister’s condo, there’s a continuation of the same greenbelt. I bike incessantly: if given the opportunity, I bike from one end of the greenbelt to the opposite side of town without having to leave the connected greenbelts. (I cannot do this as much anymore which generally makes me utterly peeved at myself.)

    I’m lucky, though. I can manhandle my bike through those annoying and ill placed “trail markers”–large wooden blocks that are supposed to make it obvious that this is an entrance to the trail. They’re narrow to the point that I tend to worry about hitting them. I have since I was eight years old so we’re talking only a few feet apart. I don’t think a scooter or a wheelchair would fit between them. And someone who’s larger may have to go around the blocks. Plus, I cannot say honestly that the trails that I use are accessible in all areas given that, depending upon the area, unless I’m using a mountain bike, I can barely manage the terrain.

    I can also cross the rickety bridges that connect parts of the greenbelt. And, if I feel threatened on the paths by wildlife or humans, I’m on a bike and can probably go faster. I don’t think that it would be safe for someone walking parts of the same paths because of some of the more dangerous folks who are there.

    Possibly triggery: (This sounds vague so: I have been propositioned, threatened, and offered drugs repeatedly on a section that’s a good seven blocks of trail. Said area is also known to have its own rape stats. And I would worry for someone who’s not on a bike and/or not alone and/or not male. I worry about me for that matter, given that it would be normal, if I was having a bad pain day, for me to go slowly and place myself at greater risk.)

  2. Thanks for highlighting the problems wiht access to green spaces. I for one love to go outside, but I can’t go places I haven’t been taught how to go to, and it takes me forever to learn new routes. For this reason, I can’t go to the park unless someone accompanies me. I do get to walk on institution ground sindependently, and these are pretty green, so I do think I ge tmy “green time” nonetheless.

  3. Thanks for this. I feel horribly guilty about not getting outside and exercising more. But it’s hard when I work during most daylight hours, and I’m so tired when I get out of work, and whenever I go outside I get that horrible feeling that everyone’s watching me. I’d rather stay inside, though I know it would probably help me feel better to get out more. =(

  4. I’m very lucky; I have never lived in a place where there were not parks at the end of my street. The park nearest where I grew up is still not fully wheelchair accessible, but the part nearest the local lawn bowls club, the kindergarten and the library almost is (and at least two of those three facilities are – I don’t know about the bowls club as I have never been in there). There used to be (may still be) a memorial garden there with mostly scented plants which I used to like sitting down in or walking through and crushing the plants to sniff them or feel the different textures. I’m told it was designed with that in mind – not only to adhere to ideas of the time with regards to visual aesthetic pleasure, but to appeal to other senses as well.

  5. I’m lucky as well. I can drive to a national forest in 20 minutes. I can walk to a city park with a creek (well, a creek during the winter-during the summer it is dry) in 5 minutes. And the national forest land is pretty accessible. The lake has a paved, wheelchair accessible trail going around it. The park is less accessible, especially since the winter storms took out the bridge across the creek and made the gravel trail hard to walk on, much less use in a wheelchair or scooter. Though there is an area that you can drive into and be near the water and trees. But no public transport can get you there, as the town I live in has no public transport. The park is also not the safest place. During the day, it is pretty much OK, but at night and in the evening (when most people are off work) it is unsafe.

    Due to one of my LDs, it took me a long time to learn to drive and only when I did was the national forest accessible to me without relying on others for help. And the national forest is far by the better place to hike and be outside, due to having fewer people and more beautiful land. I find hiking there very helpful to my mood; I wish everyone had access to such a great place.

  6. The transit one is a huge one for me. I actually did have a park in walking distance to me in the apartment I’d been living in on campus, so that in itself wasn’t an issue– but that was solely because I happened to have chosen an apartment that was just down the street from it. There were other parks in town where events I really wanted to go to were held, but there was no transit access to these parks at all, and the entrances were located in quite pedestrian-unfriendly areas; I always had to try to arrange a carpool to these things, and didn’t always succeed at it. And of course, if I’d been living in another part of town? Even the park that was accessible for me might not have been.

    On a related note, I’ve noticed a rather insidious thing quite a bit lately: things that are perfectly accessible to wheelchair users who can drive, but which are horrifically inaccessible to those who use alternative forms of transportation. Like a building whose accessible entrance is adjacent to the parking lot, but completely on the other side of the building from the bus stop. Or a park which has dozens of wheelchair-accessible trails from the parking lot, but no way to get to that parking lot from the bus stop.

  7. This is a great point, which has an even wider application. So often people are told to go outside, get more exercise, eat more fruits and veggies, cook their own meals, use extra-virgin olive oil, don’t sit in an office chair for too long, blah blah blah. The barriers to doing these things should be, but aren’t, clear to the medical establishment. It’s not just disability, but also poverty (which could be considered a form of disability). Add to the what-ifs of accessibility the what-ifs of other types of disadvantaged living:

    – What if your neighborhood has no sidewalks?
    – What if your neighborhood is unsafe to walk in?
    – What if the nearest park is a long drive away, and you don’t have a car or can’t afford the gas, and your town doesn’t have public transportationd?
    – What if you must work two or more jobs just to make ends meet, and have a long public-transportation commute, therefore sucking up any and all leisure park-strolling time?

    The NYTimes series “Class Matters” has a really good bit about how socioeconomic status affects the outcomes of people with the same health problem.
    .-= Sarah´s last blog ..Taking Down Tina Fey =-.

  8. I live in a city neighborhood — it’s safe enough during the day, but when the weather is nice I can’t walk three blocks without getting cat-called and stared at by groups of men, and it really stresses me out. Sometimes I dread running errands that require me to walk down “that street” just because of what men say to me as I walk by. I come home feeling angry and frazzled and helpless. I’ve only been physically assaulted once (a man with his friends squeezed my ass). But the words are enough to make it stressful.

    Beyond that, though, it irritates me when people suggest “you need to get some fresh air” or “you’d feel better if you got some exercise” — it might be true, but chances are, you’ve already thought of that. Nobody in America is unaware that they “should” be going outside and exercising. You’re either doing it already, or there’s a good reason why you can’t. And to me it just sounds like minimizing the actual problem, like “you’re just in a bad mood and exercise would take care of that” like you have a minor problem that is mostly in your head, and it can be solved by fresh air and a little perspective. I know people don’t always mean that, but it’s what I hear.

  9. I’ve been proud of myself for the 2-3 times in the last month where I deliberately laid down outside on these big concrete things by the school library. Lots of green, it was April. Until the bugs starting falling on me.

    But I didn’t feel bad when I couldn’t do it, I stopped doing that to myself. Sometimes it hurts too much to move, and when it doesn’t, sometimes I’m too tired. Those times when I laid out? I was already out, and decided “It’s nice, I’ve got nothing to do, I’m going to chill out.”

    Of course, Memphis isn’t a normal city – you don’t have to go to a park to get some green, even if you live in an apartment complex. The campus is very green right now, lots of old growth trees and cocky squirrels. It’s not too big to get to class most days for me, so when it’s nice out, you get those “5 minutes” just going to class.

    At home, there’s a park about half a mile from my house. It’s okay, but doesn’t offer much besides a loop and playground equipment for people smaller than me. So walking there and back can be enough.

    But I’m very lucky – I live in what I think would be called an “exurb” – we’re not close enough to be a suburb of Memphis, but plenty of people still work there. So what I said about how you don’t need a park for greenery in Memphis applies double here – the poor/section 8 housing has tons – either in the forms of yards or fields beyond it.

    Allergies are a big problem this time of year and in fall, of course, and the real rural areas have the cotton which makes everyone sneeze and think hey it’s snowing!

    But I’ve got a huge front yard and back yard and we got a hammock recently, and my mom put up an umbrella, so we can lay on it and not spend the whole time blinking and be able to read.

    Of course, the weather has to cooperate – and when it’s 100, I don’t care how “good” sun is for me, I’m retreating into a cave with AC and wifi. (On a sun note, I’m getting a tan! You can’t tell until you see the untanned parts, but it’s been a complete accident, you’ve got to walk around campus. And it’s noteworthy because people who don’t see me daily feel the need to comment on it. At first, I thought I was just flushed and overheated, but nope, that’s some sun.)

  10. oh, going outside in the fresh air! just what everybody loves to tell me i need to do to cure my mental illness. tons of articles tell me i should just hop over to the park for half an hour, without sunscreen, of course, so i can absorb an optimal amount of vitamin d, and just soak in those healing rays.
    -assuming i can even get out of bed…
    -the park near me is infamous for crime, particularly muggings
    -if i don’t wear sunscreen, i will have a rip-roaring sunburn within ten minutes
    -the icyhot i slather all over my arthritic wrists behaves exactly like the baby oil my mother used to cover herself in before sitting in the sun with cookie sheets covered in aluminum foil, so the lovely burn will be twice as bad on the parts of me that hurt worst
    now if that doesn’t sound like a recipe for a wonderful day, i don’t know what does! [/sarcasm]

  11. Absolutely love this post, thank you. Really frames things perfectly.

  12. Sarah: Poverty isn’t “a form of disability”. Just as being gay isn’t “a form of disability” and being Indigenous isn’t “a form of disability” and so on and so forth. Disability is disability, poverty is poverty; the two are heavily interconnected and overlapping, and both involve major inequalities in our societies, but they are neither the same thing nor is one a subset of the other.

    CL: “Nobody in America is unaware that they “should” be going outside and exercising.” Nor, likely, in Britain where this study is from, nor in Australia where I’m writing from, nor probably in most of the other places our contributors and commenters come from or are living.

  13. Yes, a lot of this overlaps with “people are fat because they know what they should do and they’re too lazy/stupid to just do it!”

    I agree that access is a tremendous problem – where I live, I’m surrounded by green and have no problem accessing it because every house has a fairly big garden. It’s an extremely low-crime place with relatively short working hours for inside jobs. We’re all getting our outside time here! Of course, there’s a lot of major trade-offs to living in the country – isolation, no public transport, no mental health services, few medical services of any kind, few jobs, little for teenagers to do, poor quality food unless you grow your own… But we spend time outside, we should all be cured!

  14. We’ve got a nature walk near our house, but there’s been talk of tarmacking it and turning it into a public transport route. It’s one of those ideas that sounds good on the surface (‘hey, more public transport!’), but if, unlike the governmental types who came up with the idea, you have visited the place and understand the local context – the specifics of the road layout, the existing traffic situation, the alternatives available – you realise that the plan would fail to provide all the benefits that were being claimed for it, and that the loss of green space would be very serious indeed.

    Luckily the recession (hey, it’s good for something) appears to have put paid to the destruction of our green space, but it really bothered me when it looked like happening, because otherwise there’d be no green space within my limited walking distance. And for many, many children who live in nearby housing estates without gardens, there’d be no safe space to play.

    This kind of thing really does need to be looked at structurally as well as in terms of the individual, and I really hate how, as highlighted in the comments above, it’s often assumed that anyone who would want to use a service of any kind (be it national forest or a shopping centre) WILL be coming by car, and therefore everything has to be designed around that, with no alternative access for people moving around purely on foot or via wheelchair or via public transport or some combination thereof.

  15. lauredhel: Oh, no, I didn’t mean that literally. In retrospect, I could’ve chosen my words more carefully.
    .-= Sarah´s last blog ..Taking Down Tina Fey =-.

  16. I think all housing, especially apartment and condos should be designed with private or semi-private spaces for sun and plants–a large balcony, patio, sun room, etc, even a sky light and an indoor patio garden…

  17. Aischa – and don’t forget “psych wards” and institutions!

    I was up on the 16th floor and we weren’t allowed to leave our ward, or go on a little field trip outside. We had sun from the windows but no fresh air.

    When I got home, I sat in my backyard and pet Wickett for who knows how long. He was quite happy. We have a field behind our house where golf balls and baseballs grow, along with weeds and bugs. Nature nature nature.

    I am so lucky with that set-up and I’ve known it for a long time.

    Here at home, I can go 10 feet and sit on the front porch.

  18. given this theory, i’m surprised at the extremely high prevalence of mental illness among the homeless, who are outside most of the time. while i’d certainly like it if permanent supportive housing to transition homeless folks into permanent housing had sunlights and balconies, etc, i’d rather see it built without that stuff than not built at all.

  19. The nearest park to where I live is about a thirty minute walk. However, this park is privately owned, and people other than able bodied, visibly middle class, thin, white people, are gently and ungently encouraged to leave the premises. This is in a neighborhood that is populated mostly by poor POC and people who live in one of the retirement homes nearby. The only time the park is opened to everyone is when a politician comes by to use the space to address the public.

    On a good day, I can make the walk if my husband is home, but not being able to enter the park and avail myself of the benches doesn’t exactly inspire me to lace up the walking shoes. Any other options involve a $4 bus ride, and if we’re going to spend the money on a bus it’s only so I can help shop for groceries and haul them home. We pass a lot of green on our trip, but it’s hard to enjoy anything when we’re both struggling with our respective loads. Any day I can lug around a 15 pound bag of groceries is a good day, but it’s not relaxing.

  20. seconding kaitlyn on psych wards. when i was in one, the only way you could go outside was if you were cleared to go on walks with (i think) two hospital employees and the whole group of “walks” people. if you were on close watch or self-injury monitoring, you couldn’t go outside; if your doctor didn’t think you could physically handle an actual walk through the park, because of blood pressure or the likelihood that you’d hang back and try to bum a smoke from a stranger (to name two examples), you also couldn’t go outside. there was a rumor of a rooftop garden that people had been allowed to visit before, but the question of whether it still existed or whether we would be allowed to hang out there for a bit went unanswered for the rest of my stay.

  21. It’s posts like this that make me pine after my home city and wish it were possible for me to move back. It was safe to walk almost everywhere, I could walk to multiple parks and gardens in under 15 minutes, and the east-west residential streets had tremendous trees in every front yard. 95% of the time, I could find enough quiet. In my current area, there are exercise parks aplenty, but they’re all paved over with concrete and that ground-up-shoe-soles surfacing. Getting to a green space involves 25-40 minutes of public transit and a willingness to deal with hundreds of other people (thousands, if it’s the weekend). This does not often fit into my little Aspie life. When we leave, we’ll be going to where the more employable, less-disabled member of my partnership can find work — again, not home. I can hope for someplace a little more like home, but odds are against us.