We have known for some time that natural environments are associated with good health and wellbeing. We also know that living in a safe, clean and cared for place is important. However what has been less clear is whether the act of looking after the outdoor environment is good for you.
We used a relatively novel form of systematic review (a process where all available evidence is sought and synthesised to look for patterns across studies) to understand the health benefits of conservation activities. The results were published in BMC Public Health this week.
Although there was little evidence of actual (quantified) health change following participation we showed that people undertaking conservation activities thought that it was good for their health. People reported improved wellbeing, quality of life, and sense of purpose. Involvement seemed to be particularly important for people marginalised from everyday society, whether through retirement, mental health issues or other forms of social isolation.
Because the primary, quantitative evidence (relating to conservation activities) was limited we used additional evidence to try to better understand the potential health impacts. We used robust evidence to ‘test’ the plausibility that through four key pathways conservation activities might benefit health. We showed that there is evidence that common and consistent features of conservation activities, such as being physically active, doing something worthwhile, social contact and being in the natural environment, are associated with better health.
We concluded that participating in conservation activities may have positive health outcomes but that we cannot yet say whether their use as an intervention to improve health is justified. Further research is needed to better understand for whom these activities may be beneficial and in what circumstances or contexts. We also need to explore how these activities could be best used so as to not increase health inequalities. Finally it is possible that conservation activities could have a ripple effect, in that they may be good for both the health of those doing them and, by improving the living environment (whether natural or built), they may also have the potential to improve the health of the wider community. Whilst we did not address this through the review it would be a valuable avenue for future research.
Lovell, R., K. Husk, C. Cooper, W. Stahl-Timmins and R. Garside (2015). “Understanding how environmental enhancement and conservation activities may benefit health and wellbeing: a systematic review.” BMC Public Health 15(1): 864. doi:10.1186/s12889-015-2214-3
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