We’ve all felt the calming effects of nature. Being outdoors amongst the trees, fresh air, the breeze in your hair and the sun on your face, listening to birdsong or sea waves on holiday. It helps us slow down and bring our bodies and minds back into rhythm. But does it really help improve our health and wellbeing, and how?
Humans have spent thousands of years adapting to natural environments and have only lived in urban ones for relatively few generations. Never in history have humans spent so little time in physical contact with animals and plants, of which the long-term consequences are largely unknown. Modern society typically isolates people from outdoor environmental stimuli. Some researchers suggest that too much artificial stimulation within purely human environments can cause exhaustion, loss of vitality and health problems. With this is mind, public health teams are struggling to cope with the rapid changes that industrialisation and urbanisation has had, and is having, on health outcomes. Current rates of obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, asthma, and mental distress are increasing worldwide, thought to be closely linked to the increase in urbanisation.
There is a growing body of epidemiological evidence indicating that greater exposure to or being in ‘contact with’ natural environments such as parks, woodlands or beaches is associated with better health and well-being for people in high income, largely urbanised societies. A recent 2019 study found that 120-minutes every week was the optimum time to be spending outside in nature to increase aspects of health. Interestingly, this time could be spent all in one session or over several shorter visits. Another study identified that a daily dose of 30 minutes in the outdoors could reduce prevalence of the aforementioned illnesses by up to 9%, with many other studies concluding similar findings. Research seems to be pointing towards the same answer, green space and time within it is beneficial for our health in one way or another.
Physical health isn’t the only health that benefits. Reducing stress and anxiety levels helps our mental health, also showing to help increase learning engagement at school within children. Being in nature or green space provides new stimuli, decreasing our stress responses and focus. This stress reduction is automatic (through the psychophysiological stress reduction response), increasing positive effects and recovery from fatigue that urban settings often cause. Experiencing different temperatures, sun intensities and vegetation types helps this, too. Other benefits include decreased blood pressure and improved social health through community integration and social cohesion, whilst improving health through increased physical activity levels.
NHS Shetland became the first organisation to start prescribing nature to help people rest and recover from daily stress, and its something we hope more and more doctors start to prescribe to patients who would feel the benefit.
Now, what can you do to incorporate more green space into your day or week? Below are a few suggestions we think may help.
- Vary your commute. Whether that be a beautiful green park, by a river or even just through a tree lined street, it’s a start!
- Download a podcast and go for a walk, after work or at the weekend. Take some time for yourself to unwind after a busy day. You may find your new favourite café or find new things to do in your community! Or call a loved one, a friend and check in. You’ll feel great for the fresh air and even better for having a catchup with someone you love.
- Organise a day trip to the beach, local park or riverside. Spend some quality time with friends and family in the fresh air, take a picnic or a cold drink to enjoy.
- Bored of running on the treadmill or cross trainer at the gym? Download a running app and find a route in your local area or join a local running club! Meet new people and get fresh air… win win!
1) Kjellstrom, T., Friel, S., Dixon, J., Corvalan, C., Rehfuess, E., Campbell-Lendrum, D., Gore, F., Bartram, J. (2007). Urban Environmental Health Hazards and Health Equity. Journal of Urban Health, 84(1), 86-97. http://doi:10.1007/s11524-007-9171-9.
2) Maas, J., Verheij, R., A., Groenewegen, P., P., Vries, S., Spreeuwenberg, P. (2009). Green space, urbanity, and health: how strong is the relation? Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 60(7), 587-592. http://doi:10.1136/jech.2005.043125
3) Maller, C., Townsend, M., Pryor A., Brown, P., St. Leger, L. (2006). Healthy nature healthy people: ‘contact with nature’ as an upstream health promotion intervention for populations. Health Promotion International, 21(1), 45-54. https://doi.org/10.1093/heapro/dai032
4) Shanahan, D., F., Bush, R., Gaston, K., J., Lin, B., B., Dean, J., Barber, E., Fuller, R., A. (2016). Health Benefits from Nature Experiences Depend on Dose. Scientific Reports, 6(28551). https://www.nature.com/articles/srep28551.
5) White, M., P., Alcock, I., Grellier, J., Wheeler, B., W., Hartig, T., Warber, S., L., Bone, A., Depledge, M., H., Fleming, L., E. (2019). Spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature is associated with good health and wellbeing. A Nature Research Journal, 9(7730). http://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-44097-3.
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