Nature and Health

How science is attempting to understand why nature can have a positive impact on our health and wellbeing.

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Written by Dr. Anwen Whitham and Lisa Jones

Throughout history, people have recognised the role that nature has in promoting health: from the Romans building their bathhouses to socialise, clean and relieve rheumatic symptoms, to the Victorians seeking the fresh air that the country and seaside offered as an escape from the smog filled cities and the associated ailments – the power of nature as healer is rooted in history. It is therefore perhaps not surprising that with the rise in psychological and physical health problems in the UK, we are turning to mother nature for help once again.

Encouraged by government policy documents: Choosing Health (2004), Our Health, Our Care Our Say (2006) and Healthy Lives, Healthy People (2010), Future in Mind (2015) to name a few – the focus is very much on prevention of physical and psychological problems by promoting wellbeing and resilience; it is here that the natural world provides. Indeed the 2011 Natural Environment White Paper set out a clear aspiration for everyone to be able to make the most of what it calls ‘nature’s health service’, moreover, since 2009 Ofsted have recommended that “schools should … ensure that all pupils have access to out-of-classroom learning to support their understanding of the need to care for their environment and to promote their physical and psychological wellbeing.” It is therefore rather sad that adult and

childhood obesity is on the rise and that the prevalence of mental health conditions in the UK is high.

There are numerous factors that are contributing to the physical and mental health challenges that face us in the 21st Century and as time progresses, societal demands and developments will no doubt bring more challenges. With this in mind, it is perhaps even more important to consider a constant throughout history, nature, to see how we can nurture the benefits of this resource. With the advancement of science, it is now possible to describe what benefits nature can bring to us, although the how and why is still more tricky to work out.

Perhaps the most obvious example of how nature is embraced at a general level can be seen in the planning of urban developments and office blocks. When in the development stage, natural features are often incorporated, ever wondered why? Well, put simply, having access to trees, parks, gardens and water can impact how we feel, and how we feel affects our physiology and behaviour. This makes sense but is also beginning to be shown in the literature. For example, there is a growing body of evidence suggesting that being in the natural environment can contribute to reducing stress with several studies now documenting improvement in heart rate, blood pressure and subjective mood ratings.

Moreover, evidence has also been found, using fMRI technology looking at brain activity, that areas of the brain where deactivation is associated with depression and anxiety have shown increased activity following walks in a natural setting. This is a really interesting and potentially important finding for alternative non-pharmaceutical interventions offered for depression and anxiety conditions as part of a wholistic package of care.

In addition to thinking about nature and how it might mediate the impact on stress, anxiety and depression, there are further studies suggesting that the presence of greenery in urban areas can impact aggression and antisocial behaviour. Moreover, some studies have found improvement of ADHD symptoms in children who have access to outdoor activities in nature. Although such reports have not been subjected to the rigours of the randomised control trial upon which the National Institute of Clinical Excellence (NICE) base their intervention guidelines, these results are nonetheless interesting in the context of working with children in general as well as those who have specific challenges. Because evidence suggests that emotional wellbeing and social skills provide a strong foundation for developing cognitive abilities, and that early childhood experiences can be the essential foundation for success in later adult life, it is therefore important that children have the opportunity to develop vital life skills through play, interacting with others and having rich and varied experiences which of course can be offered in abundance by our natural world.

It is not only at an individual level where research has considered the positive influence of nature. For example, researchers at the University of Rochester, in New York, report that exposure to the natural environment can even impact at community level, with people showing more value for community and close relationships. This is important because sense of belonging and social support can be protective factors for overall wellbeing, which is perhaps why a growing number of social prescriptions in the UK recommend community interventions run by environmental volunteering charities that focus on working towards shared practical environmental goals. The resulting benefits for emotional wellbeing, through improved confidence, communication, social skills and shared experiences can enhance an individual’s sense of belonging to a community and overall self-esteem – this is perhaps because social connection has been identified as a key pillar in promoting healthy brains.

Whilst the emerging body of research exploring
the benefits of nature is interesting, it is clear that a lot more careful
research is needed to tease apart exactly how
and why these results are
happening before we come to any definitive recommendations and conclusions.
However, what we can say is that nature is a free resource that does seem to be
beneficial for many people and for many different reasons. So, we need to
appreciate and look after this precious resource for ourselves and future
generations and embrace the myriad of opportunities it offers throughout the
life span as a way to take responsibility for and promote our own psychological
and physical wellbeing. 

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