Antoni Sanz

Antoni Sanz on the Science of the Human Psyche in Nature for Integration into Health Care

Antoni Sanz holds a PhD in Psychology and has been a university professor in the Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona for decades, specializing in basic research in motivation and emotion, and in applied research in health psychology. At the beginning of his studies he signed up for a Speleology course to explore caves and try to lose his terror of heights. And he has certainly achieved it: he is a federated mountain athlete, a “mountaineer,” as he likes to say, and has published cutting-edge research on how nature and outdoor sports influence emotions and cognition.

He is part of the team of international experts who will be teaching during the 8-day FTHub Professional Immersive Forest Therapy training in Barcelona, FTHub Summer School. Enjoy it, his approach is a real gift.

“Before starting with the current project, which is nature-based activity therapies, we had conducted a project in which risk sports were employed in nature, such as via ferratas, bungee jumping, as natural models for inducing emotions. Because one of the problems we face as basic laboratory researchers is that it is very difficult to induce emotions in a laboratory setting for ethical reasons, and mainly because it is clear, the intensity of the responses is small and also it is phasic, and it is not representative of real situations. Instead, when a person is practicing a risk sport, their emotion is absolutely genuine.

“A large majority of people I know who practice mountain sports say that such activities, like hiking, mountaineering or canyoning, are an effective form of self-management of stress”

“And we use these activities in nature as a natural way to induce emotions to explore what effects that had on the brain’s ability to process information. And in the context of those early studies, where they were a mere instrumental use of those sports as a context for the natural induction of real emotions, to study the effects on information processing, we began to conceive in our research the sports activities in nature as a space to improve human health.”

The key to long-term benefits


“People have discovered wilderness more intensely than ever before not just for sport, but for mental health and emotional well-being as well. And we are seeing that in the Health world it is understood that activities in nature can be susceptible to be integrated within the health system, that it can be prescribed. In the same way that until now, because to solve a mental health problem you could prescribe a pill, why not prescribe, especially in mild to moderate cases, for example, of anxious depressive symptomatology, prescribe activity, sporting activity and why not sporting activity in nature?

“My experience clearly points to the fact that there are benefits that are not only transitory, that are not only at the moment you are doing that activity in nature, but then when you return home and when you remember that activity, even when you are planning a new outing to the mountains, just the expectation that it generates already begins to generate positive emotions that you are experiencing. Just with that cognitive anticipation that you have of that activity, you’re already enjoying it even though you’re not in nature yet”.

“There are benefits that are not only temporary, but also when you return home and recall, even when you’re planning, just with that cognitive anticipation of that activity, you’re already enjoying it even though you’re not yet in nature”.
“And contrasting that experience with other people with whom I share, a large majority of people I know who practice mountain sports say that such activities, such as hiking, mountaineering or canyoning, are an effective form of self-management of stress. In fact, they often have a certain withdrawal syndrome when in their daily lives they cannot receive that dose because they know it is therapeutic, they need it.”
Nature Prescription

“To what extent can we subject this narrative, this narrative of others that I am narrating in this way, to a scientific evaluation with a rigorous methodology? We have done it, we are making contributions, we have conducted several studies with various methodologies and all in general converge to the same conclusion: that there are benefits not only during the practice of activity in nature, but you transfer it because you take it home.

“And in some cases, under certain conditions, there can be quite structural effects, which can last longer than a few hours or a few days. They change you, they can modify your way of perceiving reality and perceiving yourself, and they can affect your quality of life, your satisfaction with life in general. We have evidence in that sense and our scientific evidence is quite consistent with the scant but growing scientific evidence being produced by other research groups.

“Synergies are needed so that we work together to generate enough scientific evidence and can recommend to the Governance actors of the Health world, that it is worth making an effort to incorporate the social/green prescription of physical activities in nature into health schemes, especially for health promotion.”


Of caves, vocation and research

“It was when I was 18 years old that I decided to sign up for an introductory course in speleology, to explore caves and chasms. I did it as a matter of sporting interest, for scientific interest, but also for personal interest, because I was very afraid of heights. And indeed, I managed to solve my problem of fear of heights for life.

“I have respect for them because I do a lot of vertical activity, let’s say mountaineering and so on, but I no longer have that feeling of vertigo that I had. I used to go to the mountain, near my house, to the natural park of Sant Llorenç del Munt, and I would go to the mountain after work, with my sneakers, with my little hydrator”.

“Nature is part of my life. I cannot conceive of my life if it is not with these doses of activity in nature”.

“When I was a little boy I had a clear scientific vocation, I wanted to be that scientist who helped astronauts to do scientific research. And I chose Psychology as my first choice for university and I feel very fulfilled, not only for being a mountaineer, but because I have achieved my dream. I entered the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB), I did my degree, my doctorate and here I am still a university professor. So I am very happy to have chosen this wonderful profession”.


Ph: Courtesy Antoni Sanz





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