Going greener: does the natural environment really help health and wellbeing?

Ben Wheeler contributed an article to the latest edition of the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy’s magazine ‘Frontline’. In the article Ben considers the evidence for how natural environments relate to health outcomes.
It has long been thought that interacting with natural environments can benefit health and wellbeing. For example, the restorative potential of urban parks was promoted in the 1875 Public Health Act, and convalescence at coastal sea bathing hospitals was common in that same era.
 
More recently, scientific evidence has been accumulating to suggest that experiencing natural environments might benefit health through a variety of mechanisms.
 
These experiences include direct interaction, such as taking a walk on a coastal path or running in a park, but also include the ‘view from a window’ and the indirect impacts that natural environments can have on environmental conditions (such as reducing urban heat island effects). 
 
The proposed mechanisms linking nature and health are supported by varying degrees of evidence, but range from promoting physical activity to providing opportunities for recovery from stress; from ameliorating the adverse impacts of urban air pollution to enhancing social contact.
 
A recent study used survey data on about 180,000 people in England found that those living close to the coast were more likely to report meeting physical activity guidelines than those living further inland.
 
Another study using data from individuals over 18 years found that when people moved to a greener urban area, it was associated with immediate improvements in mental health, and that improvement persisted for at least three years after moving home.
 
The evidence base is not conclusive, but it is growing rapidly. More robust, cause-effect evidence is needed on both preventive ‘salutogenic’ (health promoting) aspects, and also on the potential for therapeutic intervention through so-called ‘green prescriptions’ and other treatment routes.
 
If environmental and health research, policy and practice can coalesce, it should be possible to find ways to improve health and wellbeing whilst protecting our valuable natural heritage.

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