Journal of Sports Science and Medicine
Journal of Sports Science and Medicine
ISSN: 1303 - 2968   
Ios-APP Journal of Sports Science and Medicine
Androit-APP Journal of Sports Science and Medicine
©Journal of Sports Science and Medicine (2021) 20, 789 - 798   DOI:

Research article
Sports in Natural Environment, Sports in Urban Environment: An fMRI Study about Stress and Attention/Awareness
Antonio Baena-Extremera1, Julio F. García2, , Andrés C. Martínez3, Cristina Martín-Pérez4
Author Information
1 Faculty of Education Sciences, University of Granada, Spain
2 Department of Education, Research and Evaluation Methodology, University Pontifical Comillas, Spain
3 Faculty of Psychology, University of Granada, Spain
4 Faculty of Education, Universidad Internacional de la Rioja, Spain

Julio F. García
✉ Department of Education, Research and Evaluation Methodology, University Pontifical Comillas, Spain
Publish Date
Received: 21-03-2021
Accepted: 10-09-2021
Published (online): 01-10-2021
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This study aimed to explore, on one side, the differences between a group of athletes exercising outdoor (OG) and another group exercising indoor (IG) in stress and awareness, and, on the other side, between-group differences in the fMRI activations during the visualization of natural environment images versus urban images. In addition, we aimed to analyze the associations between the resulting task-related brain activations and stress and attention-awareness in each group separately. All the participants (N = 49; OG = 21, 11 females, mean age = 40, SD = 6.49; and IG = 25, 11 females, mean age = 40; 6.19) underwent an fMRI scan and completed the Perceived Stress Scale and the Mindful Attention Awareness Scale. Besides, we collected a sample of hair cortisol. Participants viewed three types of images: water nature, green nature and urban images. Two-sample t-test with corrected p=0.001 values were carried out. Further correlational analyses were performed to estimate the associations between task-related brain activations and our pyscho-emotional measures in each group. Fisher tests were used to explore for potential between-group differences in the correlational indexes. In OG, compared to IG, we found a higher activation of the middle occipital cortex and a cluster comprising the supplementary motor area (SMA), the premotor cortex and the pre-SMA while viewing green nature images versus urban images. In OG, more than in IG, the higher activation of the left SMA cluster negatively correlated with perceived stress, while in the IG, more than in OG, the higher premotor cortex activation was positively related to the total score on MAAS. No significant association was found with the hair cortisol levels. Exercising outdoor would relate to better psycho-emotional outcomes, also for athletes. On the other side, the exposition to green nature led to higher activation of brain areas related to motor planning, but also to emotion regulation and emotional response.

Key words: Outdoor exercise, fMRI, stress, attention/awareness, hair cortisol

           Key Points
  • Perceived stress was lower in those participants who exercise outdoor than in those who exercise indoor
  • Viewing images of green nature led to a higher activation of motor brain areas in the outdoor group, in comparison with the indoor group
  • The higher activation of motor brain areas while viewing green nature was related to lower perceived stress only in those participants who exercise outdoor
  • Exercising outdoor, especially in green spaces, might benefit psychological wellbeing
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