Walking in nature has a stress-buffering effect on chronic but not acute stress

  • G. Olafsdottir
  • P. Cloke
  • A. Schultz
  • Z. van Dyck
  • T. Eysteinsson
  • B. Thorleifsdottir
  • C. Vögele


Background: We investigated the effects of experiencing nature on responses to acute and chronic stress. We hypothesised that exposure to nature in the context of leisure walking can have stress-buffering effects over and above the effects of exposure to nature scenes or physical exercise alone. Method: Healthy, physically inactive university students (N=90) were randomly allocated to 1 of 3 groups: walking outside in a nature-rich setting, walking on a treadmill in a gym, watching a video-recording of nature in a laboratory setting. Self-report and psychophysiological responses (salivary cortisol, heart rate) to the socially evaluated cold pressor test (SECPT) were monitored twice: when students were not taking exams (relaxed period) and during the exam period (exam period). Findings: There were no baseline differences between groups. Mean cortisol levels across groups were significantly higher during the exam period compared to the relaxed period (p < .001), with the lowest cortisol increase in the nature group (p <.089). No differences were found between groups in responses to the SECPT. Discussion: These results indicate that responses to chronic stress can be mitigated by a 40 minute walk in nature, and this is more effective than watching nature scenes or physical exercise alone. Acute stress responses (SECPT) did not differ between groups, which may reflect a ceiling effect of stress responses to this standard laboratory stressor. These findings have important implications for local authorities to advocate the therapeutic agency of nature walks and to provide the public with easy access to nature-rich places.
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