A paper published this week in The Lancet Planetary Health combined much of the evidence of green space and health (in a systematic review) and found that increasing amounts of residential green space was significantly associated with a reduction in all-cause mortality. Importantly their study identified the presence of a dose-response relationship with green space and health. This is a key aspect when assessing the causality of an association and therefore this paper helps strengthen the evidence that being in nature is not only associated with improved health and wellbeing but causes it.
There is evidence that green spaces are associated with:
- Greater levels of physical activity
- Lower stress
- Better mental health
- Better immune system function
- Improved metabolism
- Better outcomes in pregnancy
- Reduced cardiovascular disease
Why is nature good for us?
For me, the ‘why’ is always important. And this paper presented some possibilities as to how green spaces influence our health and wellbeing.
One idea is that access to green spaces leads to increased physical activity through leisure and active transport, and the improve health outcomes associated with green spaces are secondary to this. Yet, in the study published this week, one paper they included in their review demonstrated that physical activity accounted for only 2% of the benefits green spaces bring to mortality.
Reduction in air pollution, noise and heat-island effects have also been postulated as underlying mechanisms by which green spaces improve health. One study has demonstrated that air pollution reduction could explain 4% of the effect seen of green spaces on health. Traffic noise reduction can improve sleep, stress and cardiovascular health.
The psychosomatic stress reduction theory proposes that being in nature shifts individuals with high stress levels into a more positive emotional state. This theory is supported by studies showing mediation of the effects of exposure to nature and health with differing mental health statuses, improved social cohesion.
Another potential underlying mechanism by which green spaces enhance health is by improving our immune responses, including expression of anti-cancer proteins.
I was having a discussion about this this week. Understanding the why behind nature being good for ourselves has underpinnings in our evolution. Personally, I feel this innate sense of wellbeing we get in nature is something that could also explain the positive health and wellbeing effects of being in nature.
Using nature in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction
Using nature as a metaphor to help us through some stressful situations can also be of great help. This technique was brought to my attention during my Mindfulness Diploma and one of the key things I learned during it. The wave was used as a guide for mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) techniques, helping people to ‘ride out’ their emotions.
- Visualise negative emotions as a wave. All thoughts and emotions are like waves, bound by time, building then breaking.
- Think of something that you felt worried, anxious or upset by. Think how you felt, and what your reactions were. Observe how these feelings rise within you and let that intensity build. Allow the motion to peak and then lose strength and fade. The wave ebbs away until the negativity is released.
- Don’t force the wave to move faster than it wants too naturally and don’t try to get ahead of it, ride it out like a surfer, allowing it to carry you.
I thought this exercise in MBSR was such an inspiring way we can use nature in our every day lives to support us and improve our mental wellbeing and happiness.
Ultimately, as often is the case, the benefits provided by green space on health and wellbeing are likely to be multifaceted and the weighting of each factor unique to each individual. More research is needed before we fully understand how nature exerts such a powerful influence over our health and happiness. I am becoming to realise that not only in the literal sense of exposure to nature, but in the metaphorical too, nature can help guide us towards a healthier, happier life.
To delve deeper into this paper and for all references related to the content given in this blog, please look at this Lancet webpage.
If you’re interested in this area but no keep on reading scientific papers you might enjoy some of my blogs I wrote right at the start of The Lifestyle Pill!: