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We know the health benefits of forests or water. But what about deserts and mountains?

The sand dunes of the Little Sahara Recreation Area in Juab County, Utah, April 22, 2018.
Bob Wick
BLM Utah
The sand dunes of the Little Sahara Recreation Area in Juab County, Utah, April 22, 2018.

A growing body of research shows there are positive health benefits associated with spending time in nature. But certain landscapes, like snowy mountains and rocky deserts, are often overlooked, according to a recent paper co-authored by University of Utah Assistant Professor of City Planning Alessandro Rigolon.

Nature studies, Rigolon said, often focus more on “green spaces” or “blue spaces,” areas with lots of plants or bodies of water.

“Nature is not only ‘green’ or ‘blue,’” he said. “There's other places like the deserts, or caves or high alpine environments during the winter.”

Instead of categorizing landscapes by color, he and the other researchers classify a natural landscape as an area that has plants, water, and/or rocks and minerals.

Rigolon thinks the increased attention on green and blue spaces is because trees and parks are more common in American cities than deserts and big cities in Europe often have a river running through them.

Even though green and blue spaces are more common, Rigolon said it’s important to also look at rocky or snowy landscapes so people who live in those areas know how to maximize the benefits of their environment.

Dorothy “Dart” Schmalz, an associate professor of parks and recreation at the University of Utah and one of the leaders of the group Nature and Human Health-Utah, agrees with Rigolon’s analysis.

“We need to start considering brown, red and white spaces a little bit more in the research,” she said. “They're conceivably as restorative as the blue and the green spaces, but without the science to understand how restorative they might be, then we don't know that for sure.”

The paper also compiled the sparse research that has been done on the health effects of being exposed to landscapes like glaciers or caves, which are not “green” or “blue” spaces.

For example, Rigolon said areas mainly made up of rocks or ice could potentially have similar mental health and physical benefits as forests. Some studies suggest being in these environments can help lower stress and promote physical activity.

Rigolon said there are differences as far as health benefits go between being in a blue or green space versus a rocky or snowy landscape — like the risk of heat exhaustion or hypothermia. But overall, he said there hasn’t been enough research to fully understand the health benefits of natural landscapes that aren’t green or blue spaces.

“It’s an early picture, early in academic terms. It takes sometimes decades for bodies of work to develop.”

Martha is KUER’s education reporter.
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