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Walking in urban green spaces is better for you than walking in gray spaces

A Virginia Commonwealth University professor explains how you can improve your health by walking in certain parts of your neighborhood.

Walking in Urban Green *resized* A recent study found that walking in urban green spaces can impact someone's body and mental health differently than walking in other areas of a city. (Jeremy S. Hoffman)

By Mary Kate Brogan

Taking a walk is known to reduce stress, but recent research shows that, in cities, where you take that walk matters.

A Richmond-based study found that people who walk in a quiet urban setting with shade and plants can significantly improve their mood and reduce stress levels. On the other hand, those who walk in noisier urban areas without trees or green space are more exposed to air pollution, heat and loud noises from traffic, which increase stress and heat-related discomfort.

The study, conducted by researchers from the Science Museum of Virginia, Virginia Commonwealth University, University of Virginia and Virginia Tech, suggests that where you exercise effects your health in multiple ways.

“The psychological and physiological benefits to mental health from walking in an urban green setting are likely related to the environmental exposures that individuals experience — namely, noise, temperature and air pollution,” said study co-author and project co-principal investigator Jeremy S. Hoffman, Ph.D., an affiliate faculty member at Virginia Commonwealth University’s L. Douglas Wilder School for Public and Government Affairs and Center for Environmental Studies.

Hoffman, who also serves as the David and Jane Cohn Scientist at the Science Museum of Virginia, shares insights about the study’s findings and explains how city-dwellers can use this knowledge in their daily lives.

How does walking in urban green spaces impact someone's body and mental health differently than walking in other areas of a city?

Walking in “urban green” settings like ours has been shown to be extremely important for not only providing a safe place to engage in moderate-intensity activities for health-improving exercise, but also for cognitive health and feelings of depression and anxiety.

As only about a third of Richmond's population engages in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommended amount of moderate-intensity activity per week and our Community Health Assessment identified elevated levels of mental health issues in Richmond, this research has a real-world, public health implication for our city as it grows.

What can individuals living in urban areas do in their own lives to better reduce their stress levels and improve their mood?

In our study, we basically showed that walking in a shady, quiet neighborhood was like going to a therapist, trainer and outdoor thermal oasis all at the same time. So, we can all work to spend a bit of our time whenever possible enjoying a green space here in the city of Richmond.

Beyond that, showing our support to prioritize public space to be developed into safe, quiet, shady pedestrian areas for everyone to enjoy — especially in areas of the city that have been denied these resources — could go a long way to achieving positive goals for our public health as well as climate change goals.

How do you hope this project will impact people?

I love how this kind of participatory science can reshape how people see their neighborhood as well as the issues facing our community. Some residents in Richmond wake up in a hotter neighborhood and have to walk along a shadeless heavy-traffic street to a shadeless bus stop. Knowing that these types of walking environments are detrimental to our physical and mental health should inspire us to make safe access to these kinds of spaces more equitable across our region.

It should also inspire us to look at our own front yards and ask: How can I plant more native trees and get cars to slow down and get more people walking in my own neighborhood? We know the answer now from right here in Richmond.

A version of this story was originally published by VCU News.

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