Nature prevents disease and boosts wellbeing

By Tracy Brighten

Scientific research backs up what conservation groups and nature enthusiasts know: spending time in nature is good for us

Research is increasingly showing the importance of a public health focus on disease prevention, with nature gaining ground as a natural approach to tackle a range of health problems.

A recent study published in Frontiers in Psychology has found that time in nature boosts the functioning of the body’s immune system, which leads to improved health outcomes.

University of Illinois environment and behavior researcher Ming Kuo reviewed past research on nature and health and found 21 pathways linking time in nature with good health. For example, natural environments contain chemical and biological agents with positive health implications, as well as sights and sounds that have beneficial physiological impacts.

Kuo’s research found value not just in wild nature but in everyday nature and the interaction doesn’t need to involve physical activity. Landscaping that includes trees, plants, running water and wildlife is important for relaxation and mental health benefits.

“The realization that there are so many pathways helps explain not only how nature promotes health, but also why nature has such huge, broad effects on health,” says Kuo.

“Nature doesn’t just have one or two active ingredients. It’s more like a multivitamin that provides us with all sorts of the nutrients we need. That’s how nature can protect us from all these different kinds of diseases–cardiovascular, respiratory, mental health, musculoskeletal.”

Time in nature also has a positive impact on older people. Researchers in a University of Minnesota study published in the journal Health and Place found that 65- to 86-year-olds in Vancouver, Canada, benefited from time in nature close to home.

“Accessibility to everyday green and blue spaces encourages seniors to simply get out the door. This, in turn, motivates them to be active physically, spiritually and socially, which can offset chronic illness, disability and isolation,” says Jessica Finlay, lead author of the study.

The World Health Organisation expects depression will be the second biggest cause of illness worldwide by 2020, and anti-depressant drug use is on the increase.

According to the UK’s Mental Health Foundation, in the course of a year, 25% of people will experience some kind of mental health problem, including 20% of children. Depression affects 20% of older people living in the community and 40% in care homes. Suicide is the most common cause of death in men under 35, and the UK has one of the highest rates of self-harm in Europe.

In 2014, 57 million items categorised as anti-depressant drugs were dispensed, an increase of 7.2% since 2013 and 97.1% since 2004, according to the Prescriptions Dispensed in the Community report for England (2004-2014), produced by the Health & Social Care Information Centre. Drugs come with side-effects, unlike green prescriptions for lifestyle changes.

The Wildlife Trusts is a conservation organisation of 47 regional trusts around the UK that work to protect Britain’s wild spaces, not just large wildlife reserves but smaller wildlife habitats within communities. The group promotes the value of time in nature to human wellbeing as well as the importance of considering alternative or additional treatments in mental health care.

The Wildlife Trusts refers to a UK Foresight Project that examined mental health research and identified five principal ways in which people can feel good and function well:

  • connect with others
  • be more active
  • take notice of the world
  • keep learning
  • give to others

The Wildlife Trusts also commissioned the University of Essex to conduct research into the link between human health and wellbeing and co-produced the report, ‘Wellbeing benefits from natural environments rich in wildlife’. The report identifies that time in nature:

  • Reduces anxiety and stress
  • Reduces the symptoms of ADHD in children
  • Improves mood, self-esteem and psychological wellbeing
  • Improves attention and concentration
  • Promotes physical activity and improves physical health
  • Increases immunity
  • Improves perceptions of general health
  • Reduces crime rates
  • Increases social contact

The Wildlife Trusts work in partnership with NHS Trusts, health charities, and National Lottery funders to run projects aimed at improving physical and mental health through connection with wildlife and nature. This connection can be in the form of experiencing natural environments or volunteering to help protect them, either through fundraising events or habitat conservation work.

Tees Valley Wildlife Trust offers an example of the importance of time in nature to wellbeing. In 2012, the trust carried out a scientific evaluation of the impact of their Inclusive Volunteering programme on mental health. During the programme, volunteers with mental health problems felt useful and relaxed.

“The programme made a worthwhile contribution to increasing people’s knowledge and skills, their confidence and independence and their sense of achievement. It also improved their state of mind and strengthened their social networks – all of which are important contributors to mental wellbeing. And of course, it helped to restore natural habitats for wildlife in and around communities on Teesside, leading to more wildlife.”

The wildlife volunteer programme shows the importance of interconnectedness between people and the natural environment for both human wellbeing and wildlife conservation.

Green prescriptions that recommend time in nature offer a mental health treatment free from side-effects, and one that encourages lifestyle changes that can have long-term benefits for wellbeing and happiness.

Image credit:
Esplanade Pond by David Brighten