It was only a few months into the pandemic when the images of Olivia Grant hugging her grandmother, Mary Grace Sileo were published around the world. What was so interesting about these two women from Wantagh, New York hugging? They were doing it through a plastic sheet.
There have been many confronting or strange scenes over the past two years. If you thought the plastic hug sheet would be an isolated event, it wasn’t. It became more common around the world, as hospitals, nursing homes and families with vulnerable loved ones, attempted to offer and maintain some closeness while avoiding the virus.
Arguably it was a nice touch that offered some human contact in a terrible period, but the plastic sheet also signified how many of us have been cut off, couped up and quarantined for an abnormally long time. Unfortunately, we’re not at the end yet, and as societies start to open back up, the quarantines have shifted from government mandated to self-mandated. Some people are responding by doing their best to avoid Covid on their terms. City streets seem barren for this time of year, while retail and hospitality businesses are very dormant, many reporting a hefty decline in trade.
People are limiting their movements. At most, venturing out during low trafficked hours to visit the supermarket. We say this because we work with and are related to people who are taking such precautions. If someone isn’t getting out, which is rational and understandable given the circumstances, it’s also worth being aware of how one might find an environment which contributes to better health and wellbeing.
The most discussed health impact of Covid, after deaths and ongoing symptoms, has been the mental one. There has been widespread discussion about our collective mental health going downhill, while a study found cognitive performance across all ages was affected by lockdown restrictions. It was found to be longer lasting in those most isolated due to their higher risk factors. Socialising and maintaining relationships are generally the best way to address the issue, but in their absence what kind of environment at least offers some health and wellbeing benefits?
Nature – or at the very least, the perception of nature.
An often-cited study on this topic is Roger Ulrich’s “View through a Window May Influence Recovery from Surgery” from 1984. Ulrich, a professor of architecture, found an interesting phenomenon among hospital patients who were recovering from surgery. Those who had the benefit of a hospital window facing green space recovered faster, were less reliant on pain medication, and had more positive comments recorded by nurses about their condition than those who were confronted with a view of a brick wall from their window.
More recent studies have delved into this from all manner of angles.
One in Bulgaria that studied medical students, who generally have a high level of stress and demands on their time, found having greenspace nearby meant lower levels of anxiety, depression, and negative thought patterns, while being more resilient.
Another study in Toronto found, after controlling for demographic factors, the people who lived in the areas with more, or larger trees, reported better health perception and had significantly fewer cardio-metabolic issues. The authors suggested the increased health perception was equivalent to being 7 years younger, while the decrease in cardio-metabolic issues was equivalent to being 1.4 years younger.
A study of university students in California compared participants who walked 50 minutes through paths taking in grasslands, shrubs, and oak trees, against those who were sent on a walk along a busy street with 3 to 4 lanes of traffic. Those who strolled through nature were less anxious and performed better on memory tests than those who walked along the busy street. Arguably though the busy street may have played a role in increasing anxiety!
These are just a handful of examples from hundreds of studies that show exposure to green space is very beneficial. Unfortunately, not everyone can get to green space. Not everyone has a backyard, while newer urban areas are often short on trees, visible green space, or even a park. What to do in that situation?
A forest on a TV screen might be nature’s equivalent of the hug through a plastic sheet, but modern TVs can run slideshows. Filling them with nature scenes could be a decent substitute if someone doesn’t have ready access to green space or nature, such as a backyard or park nearby.
A study in the Netherlands looked at whether viewing nature images could support recovery from stress. Participants were wired with monitors to record their heart rate and stress levels as they completed various maths problems on a computer. At the completion they would view one of two pictures, either an urban street filled with low rise buildings and cars, or a green parkland area.
Upon seeing the green parkland on completion of the maths problems, the participant’s parasympathetic nervous systems responded, and their heart rates lowered. Those who saw the pictures of the urban streets didn’t experience the same response.
What’s going on here? Mostly it’s speculation that we came from nature, so we respond favourably to it, making it akin to a restoration process and a calming state where there’s no demand for our focus. This lowers anxiety, helps with cognitive function, and restores our batteries, so to speak.
The reason we invest is to support us when we hopefully live a long and healthy life, unfortunately Covid has taken a toll on health in many ways and potentially even life expectancy. Maybe embracing green space can be a strategy to help keep us healthy and in a positive frame of mind until we see the back of this pandemic.
Shared with permission of our licensee FYG Planners and friends at Mancell Group.