Nature makes us happier about our bodies

Published: 1 August 2016 at 15:38

A hiker at the top of a mountain

Research shows enjoying the natural environment improves body appreciation

A new study shows that spending time in nature is associated with more positive body image.  The research, published by the journal Body Image and led by Viren Swami, Professor of Social Psychology at Anglia Ruskin University, involved 399 adults (199 women and 200 men) aged between 19 and 76 years old.

Previous studies have shown that people living in urban areas with more green space had significantly lower mental distress and higher life satisfaction compared to those living in areas with less green space.  Studies have also indicated that simply viewing images of nature can have positive physiological and psychological effects.

This new research found that adults who reported greater exposure to natural environments scored higher on a measure of body appreciation, which measures participants’ respect for their own bodies and their willingness to reject unrealistic ideals such as images seen in the media.

The study also found that adults who were more exposed to nature reported higher self-esteem and connectedness to nature, which measures an individual’s sense of “oneness” with nature.  Higher self-esteem and connectedness to nature, in turn, were also associated with more positive body image.

Professor Swami, of Anglia Ruskin University’s Psychology Department, said: 

“We found a clear link between exposure to nature and people reporting more positive body image.

“Spending time in a natural environment may help us develop a sense of ownership over our physical selves, give us a greater respect for our bodies, and a better understanding of what our bodies can do rather than what our bodies look like.  In turn, this may promote a sense of physical empowerment that is characteristic of body appreciation.

“Spending time in nature also seems to promote better self-esteem and feelings of connection to nature.  When we feel part of a larger ecosystem requiring protection, we may be more likely to take steps to protect our bodies from harmful effects. 

“We might also develop a more equalitarian outlook that is based on compassion and harmony, rather than competition or selfishness.  This, in turn, may generate feelings of social and self-acceptance that are important aspects of higher body appreciation.

“Causation should be interpreted carefully as it’s possible that individuals with higher body appreciation are more likely to seek out natural environments.  However, if our findings can be replicated and extended, they may point to novel therapies such as perhaps promoting hiking or camping to people experiencing negative body image issues.”