Time to get outdoors: New study indicates multiple health benefits of green spaces

A study by researchers at The University of East Anglia shows that several health benefits are associated with spending time in green spaces

Research published earlier this month in the Environmental Research journal indicates that multiple health benefits are associated with spending time in nature. While some benefits of nature to health have been shown previously, this new study is the first to examine the long-term health impact of green spaces on such large a scale and scope of health outcomes. Using evidence from 20 countries which comprised of data from a collective total of over 290 million people, the University of East Anglia researchers discovered that access to green space decreases the risk of premature death and cardiovascular disease, as well as lowering levels of stress among other benefits.

The research paper’s authors, PhD student Caoimhe Twohig-Bennett and Professor Andy Jones, carried out a systematic review and meta-analysis using data garnered from 143 studies. In doing this they “analysed how the health of people with little access to green spaces compared to that of people with the highest amounts of exposure.”

For the purposes of the study, ‘green space’ was given two possible meanings. First, “open, undeveloped land with natural vegetation,” and secondly, “urban parks and street greenery.”

As well as the aforementioned benefits found of lowered risk of cardiovascular disease, premature death, and reduced stress and blood pressure, access to green spaces was also associated with a lowered heart rate and blood pressure reading, lowered risk of Type 2 diabetes and pre-term birth.

The finding of reduced stress is perhaps particularly notable given that a report by The Mental Health Foundation released earlier this year revealed that in the course of the past year 74% of people in the UK experienced a time when they “felt so stressed that they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope.”

Indications of higher correlations between health and green space in areas of greater deprivation were noted by the authors but since the number of studies which reported findings categorised into different economic groups was few, Twohig-Bennett and Jones explained that full investigation could not be done. Nevertheless, it gives an early indication that specific groups may be particularly benefitted by greenspace exposure.

A few months ago, Fields in Trust published a report which put a figure on the savings that parks and green spaces give to the NHS. The researchers’ calculations put the figure at over £100 million each year and stated that people who reported using parks and green spaces had “significantly higher levels of self-reported general health.” They based their findings on the survey responses of 4000 participants in the UK.

The new research from the University of East Anglia dwarfs that report’s participant size and adds to the research indicating a positive relationship between green spaces and health.

Possible causes of positive relationship

The cause of the positive relationship between green spaces and health is still unknown.

In the paper, the authors present some hypotheses that other research papers have put forward. These hypotheses include a possible beneficial impact of coming into contact with a “diverse variety of bacteria present in natural areas” which perhaps has positive effects on people’s immune system. Another suggestion is the way that green spaces can facilitate socialisation and taking part in physical activities.

In May, a government-commissioned report focused on National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty in England, was announced. Included in the report will be the examining of their benefit to “people’s health and wellbeing.” This could bring more information regarding the factors behind the positive relationship.

Implications of the green spaces study

The researchers behind the study call on “practitioners and policymakers” to make use of the findings by “give[ing] due regard to how they can create, maintain, and improve existing greenspaces.” They stress that this is particularly important for those “who stand to benefit the most” – this includes people who live in lower socio-economic communities and urban areas. Encouragement is also made by the lead author, Twohig-Bennett, for the public to “get outside more and feel the health benefits for themselves.”

Funding for the research came from The Centre for Diet and Activity Research (CEDAR) which seeks to facilitate research that will increase knowledge of related behaviours and aid public health advice.

Green space photo by Helen Redman_Mentalhealthintersections.wordpress.com

Sources:

Images: My own

@HelenCRedman

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