Today’s blog post comes from Catherine Reining, a graduate of Wilfrid Laurier University’s Master of Environmental Studies program.
We know that spending time in nature offers many health benefits, such as reducing stress, sleeping better, and lowering blood pressure.
But what is the role of parks and protected areas in human health?
Parks and protected areas provide access to a natural environment where people can experience nature, come into contact with plants and wildlife, and participate in outdoor activities all year round. This leads to significant contributions to physical, mental, spiritual, social and environmental well-being.
Little is known about what specifically influences these benefits in parks and protected areas. What is better for your health: a beach or a forest? Does a park with greater ecological integrity make you healthier? How much time do you need to spend in nature to see the health benefits?
I set out to answer some of these questions.
I recently completed my Master of Environmental Studies (MES) at Wilfrid Laurier University under the supervision of Dr. Christopher Lemieux and Dr. Sean Doherty.
For my thesis, I collaborated with Pinery Provincial Park staff to better understand how visitor experiences provided by various natural environments in the park impact human health and well-being.
Pinery was the perfect choice for this research. It is a popular summer destination for many people. It also contains a variety of unique natural environments, including a globally rare Oak Savanna ecosystem and freshwater coastal dunes.
During the summer of 2016, more than 450 Pinery visitors participated in the research. Visitors were surveyed using tablets at campsites, beaches, trails and the Visitor Center.
The goal was to capture their experiences and self-reported health and well-being benefits across different types of park environments.
Our study focused on the restorative results people receive as a way to measure benefits to human health and well-being. The restorative results of a nature experience include a reduction in negative effects such as physical discomfort and stress, and an increase in positive effects such as relaxation, feelings of calm, and clear, clarified thoughts.
Visitors were asked to rate their agreement with the statements on a Restorative Outcomes Scale (ROS) to measure well-being and mood.
We also asked visitors to rate environmental quality indicators such as naturalness, species richness, and ecological integrity. In addition to providing benefits to visitors, environmental quality is a key component of the provincial parks mandate, guiding the decisions of park managers.
This is the first study conducted in Canada to consider the influence of ecological integrity on restorative outcomes, an important contribution to existing research.
Overall, the results provide strong evidence that Pinery Provincial Park offers substantial restorative outcomes to visitors.
This is what we learned:
Does the type of environment matter? Surprisingly, the answer is no. Location or type of environment did not appear to play a major role in the restorative benefits reported by visitors. However, visitors who preferred the environment they were in reported greater restorative results. Whether you prefer to spend time walking or relaxing on the beach, you will receive benefits from visiting the park. Choose the right activity for you!
Everyone will benefit. Everyone has the opportunity to benefit from spending time in a park! Visitors reported high restorative results regardless of their physical/mental state or the amount of stress in their lives. An unexpected finding was the reported differences by gender: women reported even better restorative outcomes than men.
Quality matters. Our findings suggest that there is an association between restorative outcomes and perceived environmental quality. Visitors who perceived an environment to be of higher quality (i.e., greater naturalness, ecological integrity, or species richness) also reported greater restorative benefits.
Just get there. Visitors reported high restorative outcomes regardless of the length of their stay. Whether you spend the day or camp overnight, you’ll reap benefits from your time in the park!
These findings highlight the importance of parks and protected areas as environments with restorative properties. It is hoped that the results of this research will help develop policies and management interventions that park managers can use for health promotion in parks.
What can you do?
Here are some of the ways you can ensure we can all experience the restorative health benefits of nature.
1. Visit Ontario Parks
Boost your restorative results by visiting one of Ontario’s provincial parks, some of which are operational year-round.
Trees after a prescribed burn
2. Leave no trace
For us to be naturally healthy, we must ensure that our environment is healthy as well. Park managers work hard to maintain the ecological integrity (quality) of park environments.
How can you help? Leave no trace! Make sure you follow the rules. Stay in designated areas (trails, campsites) and leave things where you found them.
3. Spread the word!
Let others know the benefits of parks by sharing this blog or telling them what you’ve learned.
This research was made possible by generous in-kind contributions from Ontario Parks. A special thank you to the Pinery visitors who took the time to participate in this study. This wouldn’t have been possible without you!