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Did our ancestors’ living environment make them feel less stressed?

It’s often said that green spaces are beneficial for our health and wellbeing but now researchers at Loughborough University are set to put this theory to the test.

Led by Dr Danny Longman, Lecturer in Physiology, Yvanna Todorova, Doctoral candidate, (both School of Sport, Exercise, and Health Sciences), and Dr Colin Shaw (University of Zurich), a new research programme will investigate and measure the impact of different environments on human stress and function.

Comparing natural environments where our ancestors once thrived, to the towns and cities where we now live, the project will analyse how these different settings affect the human population.

The programme’s first study (funded by the SSHB) recruited an all-female group (aged 18-35) to be randomly assigned to spend one hour in either an urban environment (Loughborough town centre) or a forest environment (Holywell Wood, Loughborough University campus).

Following campus-based testing to establish baseline stress markers, participants were asked to complete two laps of a guided 2.5km walking trail, including a 15-minute seated rest.

Immediately after completing the task, participants returned to the laboratory for measures of physiological and psychological stress, as well as eating behaviour. This cohort was selected as it is most affected by chronic stress and is also the group currently unrepresented.

“Since our species first appeared 200,000 – 300,000 years ago, natural environments have been our primary habitat,” explained Dr Danny Longman.   

“As a result, evolutionary processes have shaped our biology to be adapted to natural environments.  However, the last 200-300 years has seen urban centres rapidly replace nature as our primary habitat. 

“This change has created a mismatch between the environment we are adapted to, and the one we live in. This leads to stress, damaging our health and wellbeing.

“Our work aims to improve our understanding of how our evolutionary history underpins our interactions with the modern environment.”

Previous research groups have discovered that spending time in nature can reduce stress, improve mood, and boost immune function. As stress is also linked to eating behaviour and obesity, the Loughborough team wanted to test if the stress-reducing effect of the forest can go as far as influencing eating behaviour.

The group are currently preparing the next stage of the programme, which is being funded by the British Academy and Leverhulme Trust. This project will address a more diverse range of natural environments, as well as more targeted aspects of human function, including cognitive, immune and physical function.

Those wishing to participate in the research can register their interest by contacting Yvanna Todorova (y.todorova@lboro.ac.uk).

The results of the work will be published by Easter 2022.

Notes for editors

Press release reference number: 21/259

Loughborough is one of the country’s leading universities, with an international reputation for research that matters, excellence in teaching, strong links with industry, and unrivalled achievement in sport and its underpinning academic disciplines.

It has been awarded five stars in the independent QS Stars university rating scheme, named the best university in the world for sports-related subjects in the 2021 QS World University Rankings and University of the Year for Sport by The Times and Sunday Times University Guide 2022.

Loughborough is in the top 10 of every national league table, being ranked 7th in The UK Complete University Guide 2022, and 10th in both the Guardian University League Table 2022 and the Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide 2022.

Loughborough is consistently ranked in the top twenty of UK universities in the Times Higher Education’s ‘table of tables’ and is in the top 10 in England for research intensity. In recognition of its contribution to the sector, Loughborough has been awarded seven Queen's Anniversary Prizes.

The Loughborough University London campus is based on the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and offers postgraduate and executive-level education, as well as research and enterprise opportunities. It is home to influential thought leaders, pioneering researchers and creative innovators who provide students with the highest quality of teaching and the very latest in modern thinking.

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