A photograph of a park with mature trees and a lake.
Historic photography Listed places Parks and Gardens

Why Exercising in Historic Green Spaces is Good for Your Mental (and Physical) Health 

Explore the benefits of historic public parks and green spaces across England.

Historic England’s Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest in England identifies over 1,700 sites that are recognised as being of special historic significance.

A decorated bridge crossing a lake surrounded by trees in Birkenhead Park.
The Grade I listed Birkenhead Park in Merseyside was the world’s first public park. © Historic England Archive. DP175240.

Many of these sites are public parks and gardens, such as Wivenhoe Park, which is managed and maintained by the University of Essex, the home of the green exercise revolution.

Public green spaces and physical activity 

Long recognised as important community assets, there is growing recognition of the value of public parks and green spaces for promoting physical activity. The benefits include significant reductions in all-cause mortality, chronic disease risk and mental ill-health.

2 people are walking past trees, with a war memorial and lake in the distance.
The Grade II listed Poole Park in Dorset. Contributed to the Missing Pieces Project by Victoria Gooch.

Academic reviews have previously demonstrated that individuals with access to local greenspaces are more likely to meet physical activity recommendations, with individuals over 2.25km (about 1.4 miles) from a green space 24 per cent less likely to meet physical activity recommendations than those less than 0.83km (about half a mile) away.

Furthermore, a greater number of parks within a 0.5km (about a third of a mile) area from an individual’s home has been shown to predict higher physical activity.  

Watch ‘Green Exercise in Wivenhoe Park’ by the University of Essex.

Being physically active within a natural environment (termed ‘Green Exercise’) has been demonstrated to provide additive benefits above those of physical activity indoors.

Individuals also report that physical activity in green spaces is more enjoyable than physical activity in other environments (and thus that they are more likely to repeat the behaviour).

A black and white photo showing adults and children crossing a historic bridge, with historic buildings in the background.
Crowds walking over the Serpentine Bridge in Hyde Park, London, between 1955 and 1965. © Historic England Archive. AA099975.

This behavioural shift could provide significant long-term health benefits, both for individuals and for communities of people with specific health challenges. 

The health benefits of public green spaces 

Whilst walking may be one of the most popular activities undertaken in public parks or green spaces, with approximately 73 per cent of adults visiting green spaces in July 2020 reporting walking in these environments, evidence suggests that health benefits can be derived from simply viewing (e.g. from a window) such an environment.

Seating surrounds a lake, with a floating pavilion in the middle of the lake.
The Grade II listed Peasholm Park in Scarborough, North Yorkshire. Contributed to the Missing Pieces Project by Robert Walton.

Physical activity within a green space (e.g. walking through a park) and activities that require direct interaction with nature (e.g., gardening) have been demonstrated to provide health benefits such as reducing depression, anxiety and stress, and improving overall wellbeing.

Green spaces also encourage social interactions that can reduce the adverse health effects of loneliness.  

A historic photograph, used as a postcard, showing a park showing a bandstand in front of a mansion.
A postcard of people walking across the park towards the bandstand and mansion in the Grade II listed Roundhay Park in Leeds, West Yorkshire. Source: Historic England Archive. PC08412.

Green environments of historic significance have also been demonstrated to provide mental and physical health benefits for individuals and communities, increasing a ‘sense of place’ attachment, self-esteem and reducing health inequalities.

Furthermore, the health benefits of public parks and green spaces are generally universally obtainable and can be derived from short periods of engagement of less than 30 minutes.

Individuals with low wellbeing receive the greatest health benefits from engagement with nature, with nature-based interventions shown to be effective at improving health and wellbeing in individuals with mental illness.

Despite the range of health benefits derived from access to public parks and green spaces, individuals from economically deprived areas are less likely to have access to good quality public green spaces.

The 20 per cent most affluent wards in the UK have five times the amount of parks and green space per person compared to the 10 per cent most deprived. This means those facing the most significant risk of physical and mental ill-health have the least opportunity to interact with nature and receive the associated health benefits.

An urban park with a person walking a dog in the foreground. A tower block is in the background.
The Grade II* listed Alexandra Road Park in London. © Historic England Archive. DP251043.

To promote and improve the whole population’s health and wellbeing, it is therefore essential to ensure access to local parks and green spaces remains possible for all.

Do you have a photo or memory that can add a missing piece to the story of our historic public parks? Make your contribution today.

Further reading

I am a Lecturer in Sport and Exercise Science and Director of the Health, Exercise and Active Lifestyles Research Group in the School of Sport, Rehabilitation and Exercise Sciences at the University of Essex. My research focuses on the links between physical activity, environment, and health, specifically, the impact of physical activity in natural environments on lifelong health and the role of nature-based interventions in improving mental health and treating mental illness.

5 comments on “Why Exercising in Historic Green Spaces is Good for Your Mental (and Physical) Health 

  1. James Youle

    I think the Sefton Park palm house, derelict in the 1980’s, was used in the 1987 film Empire of the Sun. At the end of the film Jamie Graham (JG Ballard) is re-united with his parents after internment by the Japanese in occupied Shanghai. Knutsford nearby was a stand in for the British quarter of Shanghai.

  2. It is always cheering to find new undiscovered treasures and lovely tranquil open spaces in our ancient isle.

  3. Madeleine Devon

    This sounds like really valuable research.

  4. Green spaces do ease a lot of my stress…I am very grateful for them especially in this hard life

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: