Exposure to nature reduces risk of disease and death

The health benefits of nature include reducing the risk of type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, premature death, preterm birth, stress, and high blood pressure.

A new report suggests that exposure to greenspace reduces the risk of type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, premature death, preterm birth, stress, and high blood pressure.

The study was conducted by researchers at the University of East Anglia, who “gathered evidence from over 140 studies involving more than 290 million people to see whether nature really does provide a health boost.”

According to a media release, they found that populations with higher levels of greenspace exposure are more likely to report good overall health.

Lead author Caoimhe Twohig-Bennett at the University of East Anglia’s Norwich Medical School, said: “Spending time in nature certainly makes us feel healthier, but until now the impact on our long-term wellbeing hasn’t been fully understood.”

The research team studied data from 20 countries including the UK, the US, Spain, France, Germany, Australia and Japan, where Shinrin yoku or ‘forest bathing’ is a popular practice.

The team compared health outcomes of people with high exposure to green spaces with populations who have little access to those space. “Green space” was defined as “open, undeveloped land with natural vegetation as well as urban greenspaces, which included urban parks and street greenery.”

Twohig-Bennett said, “We found that spending time in, or living close to, natural green spaces is associated with diverse and significant health benefits. 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.”

The study shows correlation and not causation, but Twohig-Bennett has theories:

“People living near greenspace likely have more opportunities for physical activity and socialising. Meanwhile, exposure to a diverse variety of bacteria present in natural areas may also have benefits for the immune system and reduce inflammation.

“Much of the research from Japan suggests that phytoncides – organic compounds with antibacterial properties – released by trees could explain the health-boosting properties of forest bathing.”

Study co-author Prof Andy Jones, also from UEA is quoted as saying, “We often reach for medication when we’re unwell but exposure to health-promoting environments is increasingly recognised as both preventing and helping treat disease. Our study shows that the size of these benefits can be enough to have a meaningful clinical impact.”

The research team hope that their findings will prompt doctors and other healthcare professionals to recommend that patients spend more time in greenspace and natural areas.

The East Anglia study suggests going for walks and spending time outdoors is beneficial. It also adds legitimacy to the creation of indoor greenspaces, the use of plants and trees in wellness spaces, and the incorporation of biophilic design.

According to Shinrin-yoku.org, shinrin-yoku is a term that means “taking in the forest atmosphere” or “forest bathing.”

“It was developed in Japan during the 1980s and has become a cornerstone of preventive health care and healing in Japanese medicine. Researchers primarily in Japan and South Korea have established a robust body of scientific literature on the health benefits of spending time under the canopy of a living forest. Now their research is helping to establish shinrin-yoku and forest therapy throughout the world.

“The idea is simple: if a person simply visits a natural area and walks in a relaxed way there are calming, rejuvenating and restorative benefits to be achieved.”

Some spas are embracing this and offering forest bathing sessions, such as The Lodge at Woodloch, which hosts a Forest Bathing exploration class every week (seasonally). The class is a guided walk deep into the forest on the 500+ private acres at The Lodge. “The walks are slow, contemplative, and deliberate and will focus on keeping the body and mind in the present while teaching techniques for deep breathing and mind-body awareness, as well as taking note of the little miracles of the forest.”

Read more about forest bathing at the Association of Nature & Forest Therapy Guides and Programs

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