Experiencing Natural Environments can Promote Body Appreciation

Exposure to natural environments, and photographs of natural environments, promotes more positive body image

Viren Swami, David Barron and Adrian Furnham (2018) – via Psychology Todayfull study

What’s it about?

Following previous research that has shown a correlation between time n nature and body image, the researchers wanted to test the causal relationship between these two factors – does being in nature actually boost positive body image?

Four studies make up this research:

Study one:

63 women and 61 men, university students from Cambridge, aged from 18 to 36 years.

Participants viewed either 25 images of nature scenes or 25 images of urban, built environments:

  • Natural images showed lakes, woods, forests, hills and mountains.
  • Urban images showed city streets, industrial buildings, factories and social housing

Participants completed a questionnaire to measure their body image state before viewing. After viewing the images, participants completed the same questionnaire again and the results were compared.

Viewing nature images significantly increased body satisfaction for both men and women, whilst viewing urban images had no effect on body satisfaction.

Study two:

54 women and 52 men, university students from Cambridge, aged from 18 to 44 years.

The body image questionnaire used in study one was adapted to measure body appreciation (defined as acceptance of one’s body regardless of imperfections, respect for the body, and body-protection from unrealistic appearance ideals). Participants completed this before and after viewing images of natural or urban environments.

Those who viewed images of nature reported significantly higher body appreciation after viewing the images, compared to before. Those who viewed urban environments did not show any change in body appreciation.

Study three:

23 women and 20 men, university students from Cambridge, aged 18 to 25 years.

This study differed from the earlier two, in that the same participants viewed one set of images (natural or urban environment) and then returned two weeks later to view the other set. The body appreciation questionnaire from study two was used to measure their feelings after viewing each set of images.

Again, viewing images of nature significantly boosted participants body appreciation, whilst urban environments had no effect. However, with all three studies it is important to note that the effect of the natural images, whilst significant, was small.

Study four:

84 women and 79 men, all living in London, aged 18 to 65 years.

Study four set out to investigate if real-life experiences of walking in either a natural environment or built, urban environment could influence body appreciation. Researchers expected that natural environments would boost body appreciation, whilst urban environments would have no impact.

Participants were given a map to follow, which took them on a 2.5km walk through either a natural or built environment:

  • Natural environment: Hampstead Heath, a 790-acre green space in north London with ponds, woodlands, grassy open spaces and wildlife.
  • Urban environment: A sidewalk route through streets with high-rise housing blocks, offices, shops, car parks and residential areas.

Participants completed the body appreciation questionnaire before and after their walk.

In line with the previous findings, those who walked in the natural has significantly higher body appreciation after the walk. The effect of the real-life experience was bigger than in previous studies, where participants had only viewed pictures.

Interestingly, the effect of experiencing a built urban environment differed to the previous studies. Participants who walked along the built environment route reported a significant decline in body appreciation. Researchers are unsure what caused this outcome, however they suggest it may be influenced by the additional pressures we experience in these settings, such as billboards and advertisements.