Spending some time outside might be a lot of fun, especially when it starts to warm up. But did you know it actually has health benefits? Health benefits significant enough to get published in peer-reviewed journals, even!
Long-term studies have shown that living near forests and green is associated with a lower risk of death from all causes, especially respiratory disease and cardiovascular disease. Intervention studies have backed up the association by showing that nature exposure reduces stress. Living near a lot of green space may also encourage more physical activity, sun exposure, and air quality.
Here’s a look at the potential benefits of nature exposure, and how to take advantage of them even if you live in a city.
The Evidence for Nature Exposure
Even One-Time Exposure to Nature Reduces Stress.
Short-term studies show that exposure to green space and nature immediately reduces physiological markers of stress. In other words, it’s not just that people “feel better;” they actually have lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and lower stress levels as measured by heart rate variability (which is basically a measurement of how much total stress you’re under).
This has mostly been studied in Japan. It even has a special name: “shinrin-yoku,” which roughly translates to “forest bathing.” It’s like sunbathing, but in the forest. The point is to just be present in the forest environment and really take it in. It’s not about power-walking through with your iPod on full blast; it’s about really being in the forest while you’re in the forest.
Yeah, OK, it sounds a bit kooky, but look at the research:
In this study, subjects either took a walk in a forested area or a city area in groups of 6. Walking in the forested area reduced physical markers of stress, lowered blood pressure, and reduced concentrations of cortisol. It wasn’t just the walking, because the forest walking was more helpful than the city walking. So there was something about the forest specifically that helped.
Here’s another study, where participants walked in a forest or in a city for 15 minutes. The forest-walking group had a lower blood pressure and pulse rate, and lower stress as measured by heart rate variability and cortisol levels.
Other studies on shinrin-yoku have found that it actually changes cerebral activity in the brain, again in ways that may help fight stress and promote relaxation
This review of shinrin-yoku research cited a study where just sitting in the forest (no need to walk) reduced markers of stress. The review also cited another study where forest exposure improved immune function, even after the participants went back to their normal lives in the city.
Living Around Green Space Also Has Other Benefits
So far, we’ve been looking at studies where researchers plunked people down in the forest for an hour or so and then took them away again. The problem with this is that it doesn’t measure the way people actually behave. In real life, people don’t all go to natural areas at equal rates. If they live near the park, or if they have green space right in their backyard, they get a lot more exposure.
Living near a forest or a park day in and day out, or just living around a lot of green space, has cumulative benefits on top of the stress reduction. Here are three potential benefits:
Green space encourages physical activity. For a lot of people, spending time outside means doing something active.
Running, hiking, walking, riding a bike. Living in an area with a lot of green space is associated with being more active, which makes total sense: if you have more pleasant places to walk, you’re more likely to go outside and walk around.
Green space gets people out in the sun, which raises Vitamin D levels. The more pleasant green places you have available, the more likely you are to go outside regularly. That’s important because going outside in the sun is a major source of Vitamin D. Vitamin D is a critical vitamin and one of the few remaining common nutrient deficiencies in the modern industrialized world. Just a few minutes of sun exposure can dramatically improve Vitamin D levels, so if living next to a park gives people even 5 extra minutes of sun exposure every day, that counts as a big benefit.
Trees and plants improve air quality and reduce air pollution. Trees and other plants help reduce air pollution. People who live around a lot of green space might be healthier because the air they breathe is cleaner.
The Long-Term Benefits of Nature Exposure
Here’s what we know so far:
In the short term, exposure to nature reduces stress, even if it’s just one time for a study.
In the long term, living around green spaces will encourage people to get out into those stress-relieving parks and forests more often. It may also have other benefits via encouraging exercise, sun exposure, and reducing air pollution.
All these benefits have long-term payoff.
A systematic review of populations worldwide found that more residential green space was associated with protection against death from cardiovascular disease.
Even more recently, a new study in American women found that women who lived around more green space had a 12% lower rate of death from all causes. The effect was particularly strong for respiratory diseases (like asthma) and cancer. For people living in European cities, more time spent in green spaces is associated with better mental health and vitality scores. In residential homes for the elderly, nice gardens promote a sense of well-being and emotional health.
It’s easy to see how the short-term benefits like more Vitamin D and lower stress levels might translate into long-term benefits like lower rates of cardiovascular disease and cancer.
Stress is a big player in chronic health problems from weight gain to diabetes to digestive symptoms to heart disease. A recent study found that adding stress reduction to the standard care for people after a heart attack cut the possibility of future heart problems in half. This stuff is life-saving levels of important.
Vitamin D is important for good mental health, appetite control, and immunity. Sunshine may also have specific benefits for appetite and metabolism separate from Vitamin D.
Exercise is one of the best ways to improve your health, full stop.
Reducing air pollution would be an obvious factor in preventing deaths from respiratory disease.
Summing it Up
Exposure to the natural world has measurable health benefits. Even a brief exposure reduces stress levels, and living around a lot of green space encourages people to be more physically active, gets them a little more Vitamin D, and reduces air pollution.
If you live in a rural area: congratulations! Enjoy your cleaner air and lower cortisol levels.
If you live in an urban area, remember that even walking in city parks counts as “green space.” Getting a little more exposure to the natural world is one practical thing you can do to reduce stress, get a little more sunshine, and make exercise more enjoyable.