Why Study ‘Blue Mind’ and ‘Green Exercise’?

These terms ‘blue mind’ and ‘green exercise’ may be unfamiliar to you, but they represent the recent interest by scientists on the impact of interacting with the natural environment on our psychological states and  physiological responses. Our concept of natural environments encompasses both blue and green space and is inclusive of a variety of topographies. Blue mind, a term coined by Wallace J. Nicholls  refers to our connectedness with water, while green exercise explicitly refers to physical activity in natural environments, and they both are concerned with the possible psychological benefits these may bestow. Given the challenges of physical inactivity, obesity, hyper-immersion in technology and the commensurate mental health challenges facing our society at present, blue mind and green exercise may provide us with a non-invasive intervention that could be invaluable in augmenting mental health interventions. It is more probable that their role as therapeutic lifestyle behaviors (Walsh, 2011) could offer a pathway towards promoting positive mental health, enhanced meaning and well being.

To this end, we invited Professor Andy Lane (University of Wolverhampton) to speak on the role of these concepts in emotion regulation at University of Limerick in March 2016. He has published more than 200 peer reviewed articles and was a member of the ESRC “EROS” (Emotions) study. The outcome of his public lecture and combined with our initial research meeting concluded that the research findings to date are only indicative of attenuation effects of exposure to nature on both attention and well being, however, the effects idiosyncratic and the mechanisms remain unclear. Professor Lane, in common with a recent Harvard Institute of Public study (2014), advocated that a new transdisciplinary approach would be required to unravel the science behind the phenomenon of green exercise and the blue mind.

Other research groups are also exploring the concepts including the University of Essex. Members of our team, Professor Marc Jones and Dr. Chris Gidlow (Staffordshire University) were both part of the FP7 funded PHENOTYPE project which examined the underlying mechanisms and the links between exposure to natural outdoor environment and human health and well-being.

Our research applies a different approach incorporating a transdisciplinary approach, but what does this term mean? It involves approaching the research questions in a new way from multiple disciplines. For example, our team combines an array of psychological approaches (social, cognitive, sport and exercise), with applied physiology (evaluating exertion and hormonal responses) and sports biomechanics (measuring movement kinematics) and environmental science (recording air quality and perceptions of the environment).

Our interest is in exploring the underlying mechanisms by initially investigating those already active, what is termed the ‘strength based approach.’ In practice this means that we initially test athletic populations for whom exercise initiation is not an issue and then we expand our samples to less active cohorts. This overcomes the challenge of including sedentary samples where many barriers to engaging in physical activity remain. Our conceptualisations involve a broader approach to the issues, one that includes understanding the impact on psychophysiology, on the meaning of nature to individuals, on the potential role of blue mind and green exercise in regulating emotion and on their contribution to exercise adherence. Furthermore, one cannot overlook how interacting with the environment can influence pro environmental behaviour and the potential for citizen science. This project incorporates a number of partners from the community. Our partners include Mental Health Ireland, Local Sport Partnerships across several counties and Clarisford Park, the latter of which provides a natural laboratory for our research. Together we will explore the concepts from laboratory to field studies, from mechanisms to metacognitions and from ideas and theories to implementation in the community. Our partners will be invaluable assets as we pursue research questions and translate our science into action.

PhD students at the Department of Physical Education and Sport Sciences at the University of Limerick, Nollaig O’Sullivan MSc., supervised by Senior Lecturer Dr. Giles Warrington and Dr. Tadhg MacIntyre with external supervisor applied physiologist Dr. Ian Lahart (University of Wolverhampton) and PhD student Brett Gordon, supervised by Dr. Tadhg MacIntyre, Dr. Mark Lyons and external supervisor environmental scientist Dr. Aoife Donnelly (School of Food Science and Environmental Health, Dublin Institute of Technology), have planned studies on green exercise and blue mind, respectively. Aoife has been previously funded by the EPA to research models of air quality. We also have involved two of the MSc. students whom are studying sport, exercise and performance psychology, Barry O’Connell BSc. and Prof. Dominic Harmon, who will also be conducting research on these topics.

It is vital for future research to consider blue vs green vs grey (built environments). In parallel,  a broader definition of ecosystem services, one that includes human health benefits, would serve the goals of sustainable environment and provide a paradigm in which the benefits of the interaction with natural environments could be evaluated.

Our research is supported by an Irish Research Council New Foundations Award in cooperation with Mental Health Ireland, and it is aligned to the Lifestyle and Health research theme with the Health Research Institute at the University of Limerick. Professor Marc Jones is our invited speaker for our next public engagement activity on June 21st in Portlaoise being organized with Laois Sports Partnership and Mental Health Ireland.


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