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A focus on health and wellbeing

Lady walking in park
© RMIT Europe and EIT Climate-KIC, EIT Food and EIT Urban Mobility

A growing body of research suggests contact with nature provides a multitude of long term health benefits and can be an important factor in disease prevention and health promotion for people living in urban areas.

Across the world, the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns have led to a renewed appreciation of how important every day local nature is to our individual and collective wellbeing.

Research has explored the health benefits of connecting to nature, based on the idea that engagement with nature has the potential to facilitate positive benefits to our health and emotional wellbeing.

21 pathways for health outcomes

This research identified 21 pathways connecting nature with implications for physical and mental health outcomes. These intersect environmental conditions, physiological and psychological states and behaviours and conditions. Some examples include:

Environmental conditions

Natural environments contain chemical and biological agents with known health implications.

  • The active ingredients of plants can reduce blood pressure, alter autonomic activity, and boost immune functioning.
  • Looking at nature or listening to the sounds of nature can have a positive impact on the nervous system, help healing from surgery and our ability to focus.
  • Living near moving water and in forested and mountainous areas can improve the immune system and reduces depression through the air’s negative ions.
  • Vegetation may reduce the ill-effects of air pollution on myocardial inflammation, respiratory conditions, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and asthma.
  • Natural elements may reduce a variety of heat-related health risks, including heat exhaustion, heat stroke and sunstroke and respiratory symptoms due to heat-related smog formation.

Physiological and Psychological States

Some of the pathways between contact with nature and health involve short-term physiological and psychological effects, which, if experienced regularly, could account for long-term health effects.

  • A relaxed, half hour walk in a forested area can drop elevated blood glucose levels in diabetics. In addition, cardiovascular health, obesity, hypertension and general inflammation are improved.
  • Being in nature can boost the number and activity of anti-cancer cells and the expression of anti-cancer proteins.
  • A dose of nature can create a state of deep relaxation, which can counter the adverse effects of stress on energy metabolism, insulin secretion, and inflammatory pathways with implications for diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and other inflammatory disorders.
  • Regular experiences of awe often experienced in response to nature, predict lower, healthier levels of inflammation and being in nature can lend to a sense of vitality which can lead to resistance to infection and lower risk of mortality.
  • Women living in neighbourhoods with more green space across their lifespan may be less likely to experience symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS) than women living in less-green neighbourhoods.
  • Green spaces have been associated with better childhood development due to reductions in the adverse effects of air pollution and noise.

Behaviours and Conditions

The remaining pathways between contact with nature and health involve behaviours and conditions such as physical activity, obesity, sleep, and social ties.

  • Routine physical activity is important in weight control, mental health, and longevity, and reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease, Type 2 Diabetes, Metabolic Syndrome, and some cancers.
  • Obesity entails higher risks of many health problems, including cancer, coronary heart disease, type II diabetes, and stroke and studies have found evidence tying greener residential areas with lower rates of obesity
  • Contact with nature contributes to better sleep and stronger social ties

Green prescription

Nature benefits are increasingly recognised by medical practitioners, non governmental organisations working with green solutions in cities and policy-makers.

A review conducted in 2019 identified 28 nature-based interventions used in various countries to improve health and well-being, from organised gardening programmes to forest bathing. Some examples include:

  • Doctors in in the UK’s remote Shetland Islands have been prescribing nature-based activities such as birdwatching and beach walks to treat mental health conditions and stress, as well as physical conditions such as heart disease and diabetes.
  • Doctors in the US have been prescribing time outdoors to their patients as a way to promote healthy lifestyles and prevent chronic health issues.
  • Groene Connect Rotterdam is a network of green initiatives in Rotterdam used for nature prescription by doctors.
  • RECETAS (Re-imagining Environments for Connection and Engagement: Testing Actions for Social Prescribing in Natural Spaces). A research program being conducted by 13 institutions from 9 different countries is currently testing whether nature-based social prescribing can reduce loneliness and promote mental wellbeing in cities.

Your task

Take a moment to reflect on your local context. Next, share an image of what connecting to nature looks like for you and add your contribution to this Padlet wall.

To do this:

  • Take or find a photo that best represents your perspective and explain why.
  • Post your photo to Padlet (see this guide for more information and help).

In the comment section below, share your reflections and discuss what you learnt from this exercise (and from the Padlet posts and comments of others).

© RMIT Europe and EIT Climate-KIC, EIT Food and EIT Urban Mobility
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