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Living close to nature and spending time outside ‘has substantial health benefits’

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Healthcare professionals should recommend that their patients spend more time in greenspace and natural areas, according to researchers who said it was linked to “numerous health benefits”.

Giving patients “green prescriptions”, involving greenspace use, may have “substantial benefits” for health, said the researchers from the University of East Anglia.

“We hope that this research will inspire people to get outside more and feel the health benefits”

Caoimhe Twohig-Bennett

They said their new research suggested that populations that have greater access to greenspace are more likely to report overall good health.

The review of studies concluded that exposure to greenspace reduced the risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, premature death, preterm birth, stress, high blood pressure and more.

The findings could have an immense impact considering that 11.7 million working days in the UK are lost annually due to stress, said those behind the study.

It defined greenspace as “open, undeveloped land with natural vegetation as well as urban greenspaces, which included urban parks and street greenery”.

“Spending time in nature certainly makes us feel healthier, but until now the impact on our long-term wellbeing hasn’t been fully understood,” said lead study author Caoimhe Twohig-Bennett.

She highlighted that the researchers gathered evidence from over 140 studies involving more than 290 million people to “see whether nature really does provide a health boost”.

“Exposure to health-promoting environments is increasingly recognised as both preventing and helping treat disease”

Andy Jones

The studies involved in the review came from 20 countries, including the UK, the US, Spain, France, Germany, Australia and Japan.

The researchers analysed how the health of people with little access to green spaces compared to that of people with the highest amounts of exposure.

They found that spending time in, or living close to, natural green spaces was associated with diverse and significant health benefits.

For example, it appeared to reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, premature death, and preterm birth, as well as increasing sleep duration.

People living closer to nature also had reduced diastolic blood pressure, heart rate and stress, according to the study published in the journal Environmental Research.

In addition, the researchers found that exposure to greenspace was associated with significantly reduced people’s levels of salivary cortisol – a physiological marker of stress.

Study co-author Professor Andy Jones said: “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,” he said.

University of East Anglia

Andy Jones

Andy Jones

Although research proves a relationship between greenspace and health, the researchers were unsure of what caused the relationship.

Theories include that living near greenspace increases one’s physical activity and social life or that exposure to the diverse bacteria benefits the immune system while reducing inflammation.

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

“We hope that this research will inspire people to get outside more and feel the health benefits for themselves,” said Ms Twohig-Bennett.

“Hopefully our results will encourage policymakers and town planners to invest in the creation, regeneration, and maintenance of parks and greenspaces, particularly in urban residential areas and deprived communities that could benefit the most,” she added.

The research, funded by the Centre for Diet and Activity Research (CEDAR), was driven by the overall goal of supporting effective interventions to change diet and physical activity behaviours.

CEDAR is a partnership between the University of Cambridge, the University of East Anglia and Medical Research Council units in Cambridge. It studies the factors that influence diet and physical activity behaviour, while developing and shaping interventions that help shape public health policy and practice.

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