Updated: Jul 19, 2019
When I was a kid, I lived in a highly urban setting in New York City. Seeing grass and trees was a treat. Occasionally, I would get to go to a park or visit my parents' relatives or friends out on Long Island. There was something positive about seeing fields of grass and surrounding trees that made me feel calm and free. Even baseball fields were somehow liberating.
As an adult, I still feel a deep sense of relaxation and contentment while out in nature. I know I'm not alone in experiencing these positive feelings. I know many of you share this sense of well-being when outdoors.
Well, science is finally catching up to all of us.
In July of 2018, a massive meta-analysis out of the University of East Anglia demonstrated that exposure to greenspace reduced the risk of many chronic diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, premature death, cardiovascular disease, preterm birth, and high blood pressure.
Populations with greater exposure to greenspaces are more likely to experience better overall health then those not so exposed. Such populations also demonstrated lower salivary cortisol (a stress hormone), lower heart rate, and better outcomes for neurological disorders, cancer, and respiratory conditions.
The 2018 research included 140 studies and 290 million people. Greenspace was defined as any open, undeveloped land with natural vegetation. This would include urban parks and street greenery. The study compared people with little or no access to greenspace and those with a much higher access and exposure.
Lead author, Caoimhe Twohig-Bennett is quoted as saying: "Spending time in nature certainly makes us feel healthier, but until now the impact on our long-term wellbeing hasn't been fully understood."
The World Health Organization (WHO) has been emphasizing the need for greenspace, as well.
"Green spaces such as parks and sports fields as well as woods and natural meadows, wetlands or other ecosystems, represent a fundamental component of any urban ecosystem. Green urban areas facilitate physical activity and relaxation, and form a refuge from noise."
"Recent estimates show that physical inactivity, linked to poor walkability and lack of access to recreational areas, accounts for 3.3% of global deaths."
WHO sees greenspace as an important element in providing support for mental health:
“Green spaces also are important to mental health. Having access to green spaces can reduce health inequalities, improve well-being, and aid in treatment of mental illness. Some analysis suggests that physical activity in a natural environment can help remedy mild depression and reduce physiological stress indicators.”
Science Daily quotes co-author Prof. Andy Jones as seeing a significant clinical impact of natural environment:
"We often reach for medication when we're unwell but exposure to health-promoting environments is increasingly recognised as both preventing and helping treat disease. Our study shows that the size of these benefits can be enough to have a meaningful clinical impact."
The National Parks Service (NPS) through its "Healthy Parks, Healthy People" program encourages Americans to create a healthy society by spending time outdoors. NPS sees spending time in greenspace as a way to:
-- create greater social cohesion
-- improve mood
-- increase social interconnections
-- improve physical, mental, and spiritual health
-- encourage children to play
In a report published by scientists from Exeter University in 2013, a part of the brain associated with meditative calmness lit up when subjects were shown scenes of natural settings. In contrast, when subjects were shown urban images a significant delay was noted in that part of the brain. It was as if the brain was trying to make sense of what it was seeing.
The study utilized MRI scanners that monitored brain activity. Although it was a preliminary study, it added to the growing scientific evidence that greenspace has a beneficial impact on the physical and mental health of people.
In regard to the study, psychologist, Dr. Ian Frampton, was quoted as saying:
"When looking at urban environments the brain is doing a lot of processing because it doesn't know what this environment is. The brain doesn't have an immediate natural response to it, so it has to get busy."
So What's the Hitch?
With a growing body of evidence about the benefits of natural settings, what issue might there be about how to take advantage of available greenspace? What's the hitch?
It's simple really:
How long, or how frequently, do you need to be out in nature or near urban greenspace to experience benefits? Is there a specific dose you need to take?
Luckily, there is an answer. This past June a paper was published in Scientific Reports indicating that 120 minutes a week in nature or near greenspace is necessary to reap the benefits. According to the New York Times:
"The study examined data from nearly 20,000 people in England who took part in the Monitor of Engagement with the Natural Environment Survey from 2014 to 2016, which asked them to record their activities within the past week. It found that people who spent two hours a week or more outdoors reported being in better health and having a greater sense of well-being than people who didn’t get out at all."
Being outdoors can be as simple as going to a recreation area or taking a long walk.
Spending less than 120 minutes did not have a significant effect. And spending five hours in nature had no additional benefits.
Importantly, the benefits were applicable to all people, young and old, male and female, all ethnic groups, rich or poor, and those healthy or suffering from illness.
Studies of this sort can only show associations not causality. The health benefits of being outdoors could come from being more physically active or being happier in a social setting. It could simply be that healthier people spend more time outdoors.
Whatever the actual cause(s) of the benefits of being near or in greenspace, it is important to get outdoors, be active and become socially engaged. Studies of this sort are pointing the way to healthier and more vigorous lifestyles. I would not be surprised that in the coming years your physician may prescribe a walk in the woods or other outdoor activities.
My advice is to get up and get outside as often as you can. You will not regret it.