NATURAL THERAPY: the benefits of nature
It’s official – spending time in nature improves sleep and reduces chronic health problems.
Growing up in Sydney’s Northern Beaches area, our lives revolved around the beach, small sailing boats and the bush. We would build cubby houses in the bushland near our house, climb trees, track the habits of the local wildlife, like kookaburras and koalas, spend time at the beach or wander down to Pittwater to go shing. Growing up like that, I instinctively sensed the need for connection with nature and the natural environment, and its impact on my wellbeing.
As a doctor, it is helpful to have substantial scienti c evidence to back up one’s instincts. So it was very exciting to see a new research report saying that, for the sake of our health, we all ought to be spending a lot more time outdoors, in natural environments. Researchers from the University of East Anglia examined data from over 140 studies involving more than 290 million people. According to the study, exposure to greenspace increases your duration of sleep, and reduces the risk of a range of chronic health problems, specifically:
• Type 2 diabetes
• cardiovascular disease
• premature death
• preterm birth
• high blood pressure
• reduced cortisol (stress marker)
Greenspace can mean open, undeveloped land with natural vegetation like our National Parks. It can also include urban parks, gardens and street greenery.
One fascinating Canadian study in the city of Toronto found that adding 10 trees to a city block could improve how healthy a person feels in ways, “comparable to an increase in personal income of $10,000 or being seven years younger”.
Indeed, studies have shown that exposure to natural environments can reduce the symptoms of anxiety and depression, and help children with attention de cits to concentrate and learn.
Another recent epidemiological study has shown that people who move to greener urban areas bene t from sustained improvements in their mental health.
On the other hand, adverse changes to your surroundings can have the opposite effect. Researchers in Scotland evaluated the effects of extension to the M74 motorway when it was opened in Glasgow on the health of local residents, and found that it reduced their physical and mental wellbeing.
As cities become more densely populated, more people are spending less time exposed to natural environments. In our busy lives, particularly in cities, it is common to see people who live almost entirely indoors, working in air conditioned of ces or retail malls and exercising indoors in gyms without even an open window.
Children and young people are spending less time outdoors climbing trees or nding tadpoles in the local creek, and replacing that with sitting inside, playing video games, watching television or managing their social media pro les.
The “No Child Left Inside” movement in the US proposed that more funds be provided to create opportunities for students to engage in learning outside the classroom, enhancing their wellbeing and improving their environmental literacy. That is worth us exploring in Australia.
Obviously living with a lot of greenspace nearby is ideal and convenient. That is why the planning of cities, towns and suburbs with parks, trees and bushland, beaches, and lakes and preservation of natural environments is so important to public health.
If you don’t live close to nature or greenspace, you may need to reconsider where you live if that is possible for you, or make sure you
nd your way to greenspace regularly in your day. If you don’t have a garden at home, nd parks or bushwalks near your home.
Next time I get out my prescription pad, I will think of writing a prescription for time in the great green outdoors.