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Blue spaces can boost positive body image - study

Published: 7 September 2021 at 00:01

River Cam

Research finds that viewing images of rivers and coasts delivers significant benefits

It’s now widely accepted that being in nature provides many psychological benefits, but new research being discussed for the first time at the British Science Festival in Chelmsford indicates that simply viewing images of the natural world also promotes healthier body image, with blue spaces being the most beneficial.

During his talk on Tuesday, 7 September, Professor Viren Swami of Anglia Ruskin University (ARU) will share details of his new study, to be published in the journal Body Image, which has found that positive body image can be improved by looking at images of blue spaces such as rivers and the sea.

His study involved 168 volunteers, who were assigned to one of three groups. The first group viewed 15 high-resolution images of green spaces, the second group blue spaces and the third group viewed pictures of buildings.

All participants completed a questionnaire before and afterwards to measure their body appreciation, which included statements such as “Right now, I respect my body”.

The study found that viewing images of nature, but not buildings, resulted in more positive body image, with the impact of blue spaces being greater than that of green spaces.

The group viewing images of green spaces saw their average body appreciation score increase from 3.37 out of 5 before viewing the images to 3.66 out of 5 afterwards. The group viewing the images of blue landscapes, featuring coastal scenes and rivers, saw their average score increase from 3.35 out of 5 to 3.98 out of 5. For the group viewing images of the built environment, body appreciation scores fell from 3.16 to 3.10.

The impact of nature on body image is believed to be because natural environments – whether accessed in real life or simulated, as in this new study – have the capacity to restore psychological resources.

They are a source of “soft fascination”, holding attention without effort, helping to restrict negative appearance-related thoughts. Natural environments also promote immersion and engagement, helping to shift attention toward greater appreciation for the body’s functionality.

Viren Swami, Professor of Social Psychology at Anglia Ruskin University (ARU), said:

“We know that exposure to nature brings benefits for psychological wellbeing, including healthier body image. But, given that not everyone has access to nature – as we saw during the lockdowns – it is important to find ways of bringing nature to everyone. 

“Our study shows it may be possible to develop low-cost intervention programmes by using images of the natural world. These programmes could promote healthier body image across diverse populations, including those with limited access to real nature perhaps due to health reasons or where they live. 

“Interestingly, our study found that images depicting blue scenes are more effective at promoting healthier body image than images of green spaces. Future work will investigate whether there are specific elements of nature that bring the most benefit across wider groups of people.”

The British Science Festival 2021 is organised by the British Science Association, in partnership with Anglia Ruskin University (ARU). Professor Swami’s free talk “Nature For Wellbeing” will take place in Bell Meadow Park, Chelmsford, on Tuesday, 7 September (12.30-1.15pm). To join the waiting list for tickets, visit https://britishsciencefestival.seetickets.com/event/nature-for-wellbeing/bell-meadow-park/1983909.