A study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders investigated the relationship between walking in nature and emotional affect in those with major depressive disorder (MDD). Compared to urban settings, walking in nature successfully lowered levels of negative affect in those diagnosed with MDD. These findings help with the search for low-cost client-managed therapeutic interventions for disorders like MDD.
In recent years, research findings support what many suspected, spending time in nature is good for mental health. Much of this research has used participants without a mental health diagnosis.
“There is a growing recognition that walking in nature could make us happier,” said study author Marie-Claude Geoffroy, the Canada Research Chair in Youth Suicide Prevention and an assistant professor at McGill University. “Our research team, based at the Douglas Mental Health University Institute in Montreal, investigated whether walking in nature could help people suffering from major depression to reduce negative feelings.”
The study authors recognized some gaps in the research that they could address. Few studies included individuals with mental health concerns, but of those, none measured affect hours or days after walking in nature.
Geoffroy and the research team intended to discover if walks in rural nature may have sustained effects on affect or mood. In their words, “the present study aims to evaluate the effects of a single 60-min walk in nature versus urban settings on levels of negative and positive affect in adult psychiatric outpatients with MDD.”
The study utilized 37 participants who were patients at a psychiatric outpatient clinic for individuals with difficult-to-manage MDD. Participants were between 18 and 65, were physically able to walk, and had MDD as their first diagnosis. Participants were randomly chosen for one of two conditions, an urban walk or a nature walk.
Both walks were to last 60 minutes, the urban walk was set on a busy street near the hospital, and the nature walk was set in a park with forests far from city streets and traffic. Walks took place in the morning under good weather conditions. During the walk, participants were asked to avoid conversation with others.
The hour before the walk, researchers gave subjects an iPad and asked to complete the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS). This process was repeated during the walk and immediately after the walk. Subjects then took the iPad home to complete PANAS again three hours after the walk, 24 hours after the walk, and 48 hours after.
Analyzing the data collected at these six different times before and after the walk, the researchers discovered that participants who completed the nature walk demonstrated decreases in negative affect, with no differences in positive affect. Walking in the urban setting created some evidence of decreasing negative affect, but it was less robust than the walking in nature group. The decline in negative affect continued to remain below baseline through the 48 hours post-walk.
“Although walking in all environments had a beneficial effect on mood, the results showed that negative feelings such as anger, sadness and stress – generally characteristic of major depression – were more reduced after a nature walk than after a walk in an urban environment,” Geoffroy told PsyPost.
The findings provide evidence that “a simple walk in nature, whether in the forest or in an urban park, is effective in relieving negative thoughts and feelings,” Geoffroy added.
The research team felt their study design strengthened their findings. The study was a single-blind experiment, meaning the participants were ignorant of the study’s goal to compare the impact of nature or urban walking. They acknowledged some limitations, including the pre-walk assessment was in an office or lab setting, not in the comfort of home. In addition, the nature walkers had to walk to get to the nature setting, altering their condition somewhat from the urban condition.
The researchers concluded their report with the following, “altogether, our results suggest that walking in nature might be a useful complementary strategy to improve negative affect in the short term for individuals diagnosed with MDD.”
The study, “The effects of walking in nature on negative and positive affect in adult psychiatric outpatients with major depressive disorder: A randomized-controlled study“, was authored by Kia Watkins-Martin, Despina Bolanis, Stephane Richard-Devantoy, Marie-Helene Pennestri, Catherine Malboeuf-Hurtubise, Frederick Philippe, Julie Guindon, Jean-Philippe Gouin, Isabelle Ouellet-Morin and Marie-Claude Geoffroy.