Nature and Health

Overview

It is well-known that physical activity improves both physical and mental health. Regular physical activity also improves the survival of the elderly and their quality of life. There is also increasing evidence to show that exposure to nature and greenspace positively affects health and well-being.

Engaging in physical activities in the presence of greenspace has been shown to be more effective than comparable activities indoors (which reflect the exercise component only). Physical activity participation in green settings is associated with decreased feelings of tension, confusion, anger and depression, whilst exhibiting greater feelings of revitalisation. Outdoor experiences are rated as more restorative and more effective in improving mood and vitality. In comparison, indoor activity is associated with increased frustration, anxiety, anger and sadness.

Research shows that health benefits arise in all urban and rural ecosystems tested, ranging from deep wilderness, open countryside, forests, woodlands, national or country parks, nature or wildlife reserves, urban parks, grasslands, hills and valleys to domestic gardens and allotments.

Ecosystems provide three generic health benefits: i) direct positive effects on mental and physical health); ii) indirect positive effects by facilitating nature-based activity and social engagement (providing locations for contact with nature, physical activity and social engagement), all of which positively influence health); or by providing a catalyst for behavioural change in encouraging adoption of healthier lifestyles (improving life pathways, activity behaviour, consumption of wild foods); and iii) reducing incidence of pollution and disease vectors (through a variety of purification and control functions, such as local climate regulation, noise reduction, and scavenging of air pollutants).

Participating in physical activity and experiencing nature both play an important role in positively influencing our health and wellbeing. Yet, physical activity levels have dropped dramatically, and inactivity results in 1.9 million deaths worldwide annually, roughly one in 25 of all deaths. The costs of inactivity in the UK are £8.3 billion per year. It is also well-established that exposure to natural places can lead to positive mental health outcomes, whether a view of nature from a window, being within natural places or exercising in these environments. Green space is important for mental well-being, and levels of interaction/engagement have been linked with longevity and decreased risk of mental ill-health across a number of countries.

Thus ‘green exercise’, comprising of activity in green places (in the presence of nature), is predicted to lead to positive health outcomes, as well as to promote ecological knowledge, foster social bonds and influence behavioural choices. Research suggests that attention should be given to developing the use of green exercise as a therapeutic intervention (green care), that planners and architects should improve access to green space (green design), and that children should be encouraged to spend more time engaging with nature and given opportunities to learn in outdoor settings (green education).

Some of the substantial mental health challenges facing society and physical challenges arising from modern diets and sedentary lifestyles could be addressed by increasing physical activity in natural places. If children are encouraged and enabled to undertake more green exercise, then they are more likely to have active exposure to nature embedded in their lifestyle as adults and will reap the associated health benefits.

Green Exercise

Jules is a member of the Green Exercise research team at the University of Essex.

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