Greenspace, Blue Zones, and Now…White Walks for Mental Health and Recovery?

man walks in snow for white walk
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A substantial body of evidence shows that spending time in or near nature has a positive impact on mental health.

The majority of the research to date focuses on two things:

  1. Time spent in greenspace. This includes everything from the real wilderness – i.e. far beyond cell phone range and civilization – to state parks close to cities, to small green areas inside urban environments, to the presence of houseplants in a high-rise condo. Experts agree: contact with the green aspects of nature can improve mental health.
  2. Living near water. This includes residing, spending time near, or simply visiting the ocean, hanging out by a lake, or taking a walk by a river or stream.

We can’t leave out the research on areas known as Blue Zones, which are areas where people live active lifestyles, spend time in nature – near water specifically – and have robust and engaged social lives that often revolve around low-impact outdoor activities such as walking or gardening.

When we read these articles, one thing that we notice about these places is the weather.

In most of the research, people that benefit from nature spend their time outside in places where it’s warm and there’s plenty of sunshine every day.

When we read these articles, we always realize that people who live close to nature in places with generally good weather have an advantage. Their locations and their default weather patterns make it much more attractive to get outside and take a walk, go swimming, or engage in other outdoor activities.

That’s why we’re thrilled when we find research that shows city parks and yes, just having houseplants can improve mental health.

But what about people who live in areas where it’s often cold, and, for months every year, the natural landscape in not green – but white?

Do White Walks Work Too?

If you’re a fan of Game of Thrones, that phrase might strike fear in your heart: the White Walkers are not our friends. If that sentence went right by you, our apologies: we digress.

However, recent research conducted in Poland examined the effect of taking walks in whitespace – meaning natural areas covered in snow – on mental health. This research, which is not the stuff of fantasy television, but based in real scientific fact, took the idea of spending time greenspace and living in blue zones and applied it to something millions of people around the world experience every day: taking walks in wintertime, when, even deep in the forest, everything, everywhere is white.

This research is particularly relevant to us here at kathy ireland Recovery Centers because we operate an outpatient treatment center for substance use disorder and co-occurring disorders and a sober living home in New Hampshire, and an inpatient treatment center for substance use disorder and co-occurring disorders West Virginia. The research matters because the latest weather data shows those two states are among the top ten states for average annual recorded snowfall in the U.S.

That’s right: they beat out famous ski states like Utah and Colorado – but again, we digress.

Back to the subject.

The research shows time spent in greenspace and time spent near the ocean can improve:

  • Memory
  • Attention
  • Mood

In addition, studies show time spent in greenspace and time spent near the ocean can:

  • Reduce stress
  • Decrease likelihood of psychiatric disorders
  • Reduce risk of type II diabetes
  • Decrease risk of heart disease

That’s all settled science.

But what does all this have to do with treatment for substance use disorder and co-occurring disorders?

We’ll explain.

Total Health and Recovery is Whole-Person, Holistic Health

The bottom line is that spending time outside can lead to improvements in virtually all areas of life. This is vital information for our work in addiction recovery, since we take a holistic, full-person approach to treatment, and agree with the definition of health and mental health proposed by the World Health Organization (WHO):

“Mental health is an integral and essential component of health. Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”

The study we discuss in this article connects the dots on the topics we’ve addressed up to this point: the mental health advantages of being in nature, how those benefits help people in recovery – i.e. mental health supports overall health, which, in turn, promotes total recovery – and the open question as to whether the benefits of spending time in nature apply when the time spent in nature is not green, but white.

Published in November 2022, the article “The Impact of a Woodland Walk on Body Image: A Field Experiment and an Assessment of Dispositional and Environmental Determinants” examined the effect of winter walks in snowy environments on 87 women between the ages of 19 and 55 who were in good health and did not have any complicating mental health, substance use, or physical conditions.

Researchers conducted the study in four phases. The study team:

  1. Collected baseline data on basic demographics
  2. Collected baseline data on:
  • Self-Compassion, using the Short Form of the Self-Compassion Scale (SCS-SF)
  • Connectedness to nature, using the Connectedness to Nature Scale (CNS)
  • Body Appreciation: 10-item Body Appreciation Scale-2
  • Perceived Environmental Aesthetic Qualities Perceived Environmental Aesthetic Qualities Scale (PEAQS)
  • Psychological Restoration, using the Restoration Outcome Scale (ROS)
  1. Led participants on a 40-minute outdoor walk, in groups of 12, in a natural, snow-covered environment
  2. Readministered the five scales listed above

Let’s take a look at the results.

Winter Wonderland Walks: Do They Help, Too?

After collecting the data and applying statistical analyses to eliminate errors and confounding factors, the research team reported the following outcomes for the assessment scales they administered:

  1. Self-compassion: increased
  2. Body appreciation: increased
  3. Psychological restoration: increased
  4. Perceived environmental aesthetic quality: increased
  5. Connection to nature: increased

We need to back up and explain one more thing. Researchers hypothesized that the nature walk in a snowy environment would result in improvements in all the areas above. Further, they hypothesized that improvements in body appreciation would correlate with improvements in self-compassion, psychological restoration, and connection to nature.

However, that’s not exactly what they found. Independently, the nature walk improved all metrics: that’s important information. With regards to their secondary hypothesis, though, they found that improved body appreciation was not related to psychological restoration, perceived environmental aesthetic quality, or connection to nature: improvements in body appreciation only correlated with improvements in self-compassion.

That’s an interesting wrinkle in the data we wanted to share to make a larger point: people – like recovery from substance use disorders and co-occurring disorders – can be a complex process that doesn’t always fit inside a simple box. In this group of participants, body appreciation was related to an improvement in self-compassion, but had no bearing at all on the other metrics.

For our purposes, that last point pales in comparison to the primary finding, which is that a 40-minute walk in a snowy environment improved all the metrics that matter. It restored participants sense of psychological wellbeing, helped them appreciate their environment, increased their sense of connection to nature, improved how they feel about their bodies, and increased their level of compassion for themselves.

That’s a big deal.

When combined with the decades of data we have on nature and recovery, the study confirms that spending time outdoors – even when it’s cold and snowy – supports recovery.

That’s the kind of data we can use to help our patients every day.

One More Thing

This flew under the radar.

If you read closely, you’ll see that the nature walks occurred in groups of 12. None of the previous research on the impact of nature on psychological and emotional wellbeing considered the impact of the group. It all focuses on individual experiences and individual improvements. This study means that the social benefits of places like Blue Zones – shared activities in restorative natural environments – extend to psychological wellbeing in cold environments in the winter.

In other words, we knew already being outside helps improve wellbeing. We knew already being around other people helps improve wellbeing. Now we know that being outside, with other people in the cold and snow helps improve wellbeing, too.

Since we’re right in the middle of winter, this information can also help our patients – starting today.