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Stressed? Park it — public health experts will thank you

A UBC researcher has found inventive ways to test links between city green space and our health.

One of the subjects of UBC researcher Matilda van den Bosch's laboratory experiments sits in a virtual reality, 3-D audio-visual simulation of nature after being subjected to stress.

Contributed/Physiology and Behaviour Journal

One of the subjects of UBC researcher Matilda van den Bosch's laboratory experiments sits in a virtual reality, 3-D audio-visual simulation of nature after being subjected to stress.

Imagine being interrogated by a job interview panel of three who react with hostility or suspicion to all your answers.

If that sounds stressful, then you are like the vast majority of test subjects being experimented on by University of British Columbia population and public health researcher Matilda van den Bosch.

She is deliberately stressing out volunteers in order to measure the calming affects of different environments, particularly natural ones.

She’s the co-author of a newly released World Health Organization (WHO) report that links lower anxiety with proximity to urban green spaces — such as parks or fields — and better health.

“Green spaces can play a role in preventing chronic diseases, because they give opportunities for physical activity and stress relief as well as interaction with your neighbours,” she told Metro in a phone interview Wednesday. “If you’re less stressed, you’re at less risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, diabetes, and other chronic diseases.”

Her bizarre human experiments have all passed strict ethical requirements, she explained, and the stress “is thankfully only temporary.”

“The funny thing is it worked, they were totally stressed out,” she quipped.

Matilda van den Bosch, an assistant professor at UBC’s school of population and public health and department of forest and conservation sciences, has co-authored a report on links between green spaces and health.

Contributed/Stefan Mladenovic, UBC

Matilda van den Bosch, an assistant professor at UBC’s school of population and public health and department of forest and conservation sciences, has co-authored a report on links between green spaces and health.

But while admittedly unpleasant, it allowed her laboratory to actually measure how quickly subjects recovered from the anxiety in their nature simulator, using “biomeasures” such as participants’ levels of cortisol connected to anxiety, as well as electrocardiogram (ECG), which measures heart activity.

The outcomes so far haven’t been a surprise to her – stressed subjects tend to be significantly more calmed when they are put in an audio-visual 3D nature simulator, than when they're put into an urban, "built "environment.

Van den Bosch uses virtual reality and bird and water noises to allow participants a completely immersive experience. But of course it is not a complete replacement for being out in real nature.

“In laboratory there aren’t tangible aspects like touching plants or smell,” she said. “But we did have a three-dimensional perspective in our virtual reality lab where you actually were immersed in the environment and had a strong feeling of presence — participants can actually walk around and explore the environment as sounds play.”

However, her laboratory research matches up with data from satellite maps and geographic databases rating how green different neighbourhoods are compared to key health outcomes.

Van den Bosch hopes the data from current various experiments and research can help urban planners and public health officials better understand how building more parks, more urban green spaces, and helping people access them more easily could help in the fight against major health problems, which are costly both personally and societally.

But while the data clearly shows links between green space, stress and health outcomes, less is known about why it works. Besides the obvious benefits of exercise, fresh air and social interaction, one theory suggests that the visual patterns and shapes found in nature may play a role, she revealed.

Particular patterns of nature are more easily processed in our brain compared to more artificial environments, for example in the branching shapes of trees.

“There are patterns in nature that repeat, similar to computer-generated fractal patterns,” she said. “You can look, when there are no leaves on trees, at the tiniest little branch, then look at larger tree, and then the entire tree, and you see a resembling pattern where there’s a significant similarity to its smallest part.

“There are a few studies with brain imaging techniques that suggest something particular is happening in the brain in areas associated with stress activation.”

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