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Virtual Reality Study Explores Health Benefits of Nature

Last Updated on July 29, 2019 at 12:00 AM

Originally published July 29, 2019

By Laura L. Acosta

UTEP Communications

Studies show that a walk in the park can relieve stress and boost a person's mood. But for individuals who live in urban areas surrounded by desert, connecting with nature can be a challenge.

Ismael Beltran, foreground, wears a virtual reality headset as part of an immersive virtual reality study in UTEP’s School of Nursing. Project Manager Diana Flores, background, helps to conduct the study. Photo: J.R. Hernandez / UTEP Communications
Ismael Beltran, foreground, wears a virtual reality headset as part of an immersive virtual reality study in UTEP’s School of Nursing. Project Manager Diana Flores, background, helps to conduct the study. Photo: J.R. Hernandez / UTEP Communications

That is why a new research program at The University of Texas at El Paso’s School of Nursing (SON) is using immersive virtual reality (IVR) to test how natural environments affect health and well-being.

“We want to understand how nature effects people’s health by exposing them to nature via virtual reality,” said Hector Olvera, Ph.D., SON research director and the study’s principal investigator. “There’s good reason to believe that being exposed to nature in the real world or in a virtual environment will have a positive effect on your health.”

In May 2019, Olvera and his team in UTEP’s Biobehavioral Research Laboratory launched a pilot study to examine how exposure to natural environments via IVR might help reduce stress levels in 120 men. Specifically, the study looks at the effect of exposure to green space, or parks, and brown space, such as deserts, via virtual reality on stress reduction.

“A real setting may have a greater impact on health than a virtual setting, but it is still very valuable,” Olvera added. “Especially for people who live in El Paso where green environments are not readily accessible. That is why the virtual reality study here is even more relevant.”

Researchers used a 360-degree camera to capture high-resolution images of Memorial Park, the Sunland Park desert and a UTEP office space. Rather than have participants view a screen in front of them, researchers combined the video with virtual reality (VR) to place the participants inside the experience.

“VR makes the environment feel more real,” said Ismael Beltran, a UTEP environmental engineering graduate student who helped to shoot and stitch the footage and install the IVR system. “When you see the green space you feel like you’re in the park, and when you see the brown space you feel like you’re in the desert. You’re more immersed and it becomes more real.”

Participants in the study volunteer for two sessions. They undergo a health assessment during the first session to check their overall health, which includes blood pressure, blood cholesterol and glucose tests.

They start the second session by taking a social stress test designed to increase their stress level, followed by a recovery period during which participants use a VR headset to watch a 10-minute 3D immersive video of Memorial Park or the Sunland Park desert. Individuals in the control group watch video of an office space.

Throughout the 90-minute session, researchers measure the levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the participant’s saliva six times. Stress causes cortisol levels to rise, leading to an increase in heart rate and blood pressure. But levels of the stress hormone decrease as the body begins to relax. 

So far, more than 80 men have participated in the study. Researchers will analyze the data to determine if men exposed to the green space had sharper declines of cortisol levels compared with men exposed to the brown space.

“Our biggest interest would be to see their stress response and their recovery response,” said Diana Flores, the project manager. “Cortisol levels will vary depending on how you respond to the stress.” 

Flores said the study focuses on men because studies show that males have a higher response to the stress test than females. Even so, she jumped at the opportunity to experience the IVR for herself.

“You certainly feel when you put on that headset that you’re no longer in that room and you’re someplace else,” Flores said. “That in itself is really great. I found that I felt more soothed being in the green space than in the desert. The desert just feels more hot and the green feels more fresh.”

According to Olvera, the study is part of a new wave of environmental health research that is investigating the positive effects of nature on human health.

Olvera and Gregory Bratman, Ph.D., an assistant professor of environmental and forest sciences at the University of Washington, have begun collaborating on projects involving environmental and social predictors of health. 

Bratman said he is interested in working with Olvera in exploring the ways in which nature contact may play a role in potentially alleviating or buffering against some of the negative health impacts of these factors.

“An emerging field on nature contact and human health is beginning to show that in many cases some degree of nature experience may benefit people’s psychological well-being and cognitive function,” Bratman said. “There is much more work that remains to be done on the causal mechanisms behind these effects, and how/if they replicate given different types of nature interactions across different people and subpopulations.”

In the meantime, Olvera said that using VR as a tool to study the effects of nature on environmental health has created a pathway to develop new interventions in public health.

“We could bring natural environments to people who do not have access to them, such as patients in nursing homes and hospitals or to promote physical activity in schools and housing communities to reduce diabetes risk,” Olvera said.

Participants selected for the study receive a free health screening and $40. For the study’s eligibility requirements, contact or call 915-747-8324.