A library of evidence – some adopted by the Government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in its 2011 report: The Natural Choice: securing the value of nature has showed that good access to the natural environment could help improve our general health and wellbeing as highlighted below:
Experiencing nature in the outdoors may also contribute to tackling obesity, heart disease and mental health problems. Scientific and environmental research has lent some weight to the common perception that increased time outside positively correlates to improved mental and physiological fitness.
The mental health organisation, MIND for instance carried out two ‘green exercise’ experiments with 108 people for a report: Ecotherapy: The green agenda for mental health which found 90% of participants claimed an improvement in their self-esteem simply by having regular walks outside compared to just 17% who strolled indoors. Similar patterns were discovered in regard to the participants’ levels of depression and tension, both of which reduced more with outdoor physical activity than indoor physical activity.
A team of researchers at Canada’s Carleton University whose report ‘Happiness and Feeling Connected: The Distinct Role of Nature Relatedness’ featured in Environment and Behaviour found that emotional connections with nature can heavily influence our attitudes and the choices we make throughout life. Their work suggests that there is a positive correlation between increased exposure to nature and natural surroundings and happiness – a theory long supported by the United Nations-backed Gross National Happiness Index
Our urge to be close with nature is said to be so strong that there is even a word dedicated to describing the feeling – biophilia – literally “love of life or living things”. The Wildlife Trust has dubbed this term our very own ‘Natural Health Service’ in an attempt to explain a primal urge to connect with the natural world.
The very existence of green spaces and their proximity to people is understood to have an impact on our mental health as well. A European Centre for Environment and Human Health publication, featured in the Journal of Environmental Science and Technology indicated that green space in towns and cities may be linked to better mental health. Manchester Metropolitan University also conducted studies for a sample group of 5,000 in a paper Returning urban parks to their public health roots that found hospital admissions for mental illness in the North West region for those in urban areas was almost 20% higher than places with poorer access to green space even after controlling for deprivation and population density.
But according to a report by the UK’s leading public health standard authority – the Faculty of Public Health – green spaces are not just effective at preventing ill wellbeing. Their report: Great Outdoors: How Our Natural Health Service Uses Green Space To Improve Wellbeing, stated that good access to the outdoors can also aid in recovery and rehabilitation of patients. This follows a previous investigation of 46 post-operation patients sponsored by the world’s largest scientific institution, the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The experiment revealed that patients who had views of natural landscapes through their hospital windows were discharged quicker than the control group, whose window views were obscured by a brick wall. Incredibly, it emerged from the study that patients suffering anxiety disorders exhibited lower levels of fear and anger with natural scenery in sight and even had lower need for pain-relief when measured against those without.
Exercising in the open or in environmental spaces is believed to open up a whole scope of other natural health benefits. MIND found that physical activity outdoors, whether bonding with pets, appreciating nature’s beautiful scenery, its tranquillity and wildlife or just exposure to the elements were “positive side-effects” of ‘green exercise’ – or exercising while natural scenery is in view. Citing the results of a study by University of Essex’s Sustainability Institute where two groups comprising 100 subjects exercised with competing pleasant rural and urban environments, MIND claimed that green exercise – or even photos of natural landscapes could reduce blood pressure to a greater degree than exercising without them or when urban imagery was visible.
In 2002, a study by Tokyo Medical and Dental University’s Public Health Division on longevity – even when controlling for age, gender, marital status, socio-economic status and baseline physical activity – was proven to be highest among senior citizens living in areas with walkable green spaces. Likewise, results from a Netherlands Institute for Health Services Research survey: ‘Natural environments – healthy environments? An exploratory analysis of the relationship between greenspace and health’ of 10,000 people who had lived in the same neighbourhood for a year uncovered that people living in green environments reported fewer symptoms of ill health and had a greater self-perceived general health than those living with only limited access to green spaces.