Vast new study confirms significant health benefits of nature

Nature benefits
© Bogdan Sonjachnyj

Global data involving more than 290 million people confirms what we've been saying for years: Time outdoors could save your life.

Most of us know that taking a hike in the woods or a walk in the park makes us feel good. Until I started researching more about the physical health benefits of time spent outdoors, I figured it was just because greenspace makes treehugging me swoon and do embarrassing happy dances – so of course it makes me feel good. But ever since the development and spreading awareness of Japan's shinrin-yoku ("forest bathing"), science has been increasingly backing up all the positive ways in which the body responds to nature.

And now, a team of researchers from the University of East Anglia have studied data from 20 countries – including the United Kingdom, the United States, Spain, France, Germany, Australia and Japan – involving more than 290 million people to confirm that "living close to nature and spending time outside has significant and wide-ranging health benefits."

The report concludes that exposure to greenspace – defined as "open, undeveloped land with natural vegetation as well as urban greenspaces, which included urban parks and street greenery" – reduces the risk of type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, premature death, preterm birth, stress, and high blood pressure, among other benefits.

"Spending time in nature certainly makes us feel healthier, but until now the impact on our long-term wellbeing hasn't been fully understood," says lead author Caoimhe Twohig-Bennett, from UEA's Norwich Medical School. "We gathered evidence from over 140 studies involving more than 290 million people to see whether nature really does provide a health boost."

"We found that spending time in, or living close to, natural green spaces is associated with diverse and significant health benefits," Twohig-Bennett adds. "It reduces the risk of type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, premature death, and preterm birth, and increases sleep duration."

"People living closer to nature also had reduced diastolic blood pressure, heart rate and stress. In fact, one of the really interesting things we found is that exposure to greenspace significantly reduces people's levels of salivary cortisol – a physiological marker of stress."

Noting the abundance of stress in the UK (11.7 million working days are lost annually due to stress, depression or anxiety), these findings could have a lot of impact.

The researchers are not exactly sure how nature causes these benefits; there are a number of ideas. Living near greenspace may offer more chances for physical activity and socializing, for example. Meanwhile, nature may provide exposure to healthy bacteria that inspire benefits for the immune system and reduce inflammation.

In Japan, researchers have previously discovered that much of the benefit comes from breathing phytoncides like α-pinene and limonene, which are antimicrobial volatile organic compounds emitted from trees. Yay, trees, thank you!

Twohig-Bennett says that they hope the research will nudge people to spend more time outside, and even inspire design and planning that makes nature more accessible.

"We hope that this research will inspire people to get outside more and feel the health benefits for themselves. Hopefully our results will encourage policymakers and town planners to invest in the creation, regeneration, and maintenance of parks and greenspaces, particularly in urban residential areas and deprived communities that could benefit the most."

Seriously, even street trees help. Other research has found that just noticing nature increases general happiness and well-being. Meanwhile, we get medication for all kinds of issues and ailments, when nature is all around us, just waiting to give an assist. We would be a very wise species if we started giving nature its due, before it's too late.

"The health benefits of the great outdoors: A systematic review and meta-analysis of greenspace exposure and health outcomes" was published in the journal Environmental Research.

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