How walking in nature can improve body image

Struggling with low body confidence? Go for a walk in nature – it’s been proven to help

Posted by for Wellbeing

Social media is thick with body image triggers but there’s a simple way to deal with them: getting outside in nature. At least, that’s the finding of a new study on the subject. 

Instagram and TikTok can be full of workout inspiration, useful tips and funny clips but it’s an undeniable reality that they can also play a huge role in diet culture and negative body image. Instagram, for example, is being petitioned to ban weight loss ads; Pinterest has already banned them but hasn’t stopped damaging weight loss posts from being shared on its platform. And TikTok has been called out repeatedly in the last year over its failure to remove weight loss adverts and pro-eating disorder posts aimed at teenagers.

It’s no wonder, then, that many of us feel worse about our bodies after a stint on social media. But there is a simple way of reducing the threat of negative body image without having to go off-grid entirely. A new study from Anglia Ruskin University has found that being in nature can help people to deal with negative body image by removing some of the triggers of body image anxiety.

The research, published in the journal Ecopsychology, asked 401 people to fill in a survey about their exposure to nature and body image – looking at something called ‘rational acceptance’. That’s the way people are able to rationalise feelings of negative body image and keep them in perspective. Scientists found that those who spent time in nature were better able to develop healthier thought processes, allowing them to think through body image threats more rationally.

That might sound obvious: if you’re spending time in your local park, for example, you’re less likely to be bombarded by triggering images and messaging from adverts, influencers or celebrities. Being in natural environments offers us a physical and mental distance from mirrors, magazines or social media. Instead, we might see normal people with regular bodies, animals and calming blue and green space.

Nature removes us from triggers

We already know that being in nature can promote positive body image, but this study is the first of its kind to examine how being exposed to nature can help us cope with those difficult, negative body image feelings. And crucially, being outdoors can help us to process and rationalise how we feel – which can be difficult.

Lead author of the study Viren Swami, professor of social psychology at Anglia Ruskin University, explains: “Being in nature takes us away from some of the triggers for negative body image… that we find in urban environments and gives us opportunities to put things into perspective.”

He says that the restorative qualities of these natural environments may also promote “healthier cognitive processes, including greater self-control and a feeling of time passing more slowly, giving us the chance to rationalise these threats.”

How to spend more time in nature

This is just the latest piece of research to confirm the mental health-boosting properties of being in nature. The study didn’t examine how long one has to spend outdoors to benefit from those calming, rationalising thoughts, but it does bolster the view that it really is worth trying to get to any scrap of greenery you can, every day. 

That might mean running along a canal or around a common before or after work, walking to the park at lunchtime, or having your mid-morning coffee in the garden. And if you find yourself feeling overwhelmed or jarred by something you’ve seen on social media, then just stepping outside for a breather might be the mental break you need to deal with it.

Want to get moving outside? Join us at one of the Strong Women Treks this June to escape into nature with a supportive community of women. Book your Strong Women Trek ticket now.

For more wellbeing tips, follow us on Instagram (@StrongWomenUK)

Images: Getty

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Miranda Larbi

Miranda Larbi is the editor of Strong Women and Strong Women Training Club. A qualified personal trainer and vegan runner, she can usually be found training for the next marathon, seeking out vegan treats or cycling across London on a pond-green Tokyo bike.