A dose of nature

The results of a meta-analysis conducted by researchers at the University of Essex show that a ‘dose’ of nature is good for your health and well-being. Professor Jules Pretty and Dr Jo Barton analysed ten studies conducted by the university over the past six years, involving over 1200 participants. They found that ‘green exercise’ improved self-esteem and mood irrespective of duration, intensity, location, gender, age and health status. The researchers therefore conclude that the environment provides an important, and often overlooked health service.

Physical inactivity results in roughly one in 25 deaths worldwide, linked as it is to obesity and as a risk factor in many chronic diseases. More than half of the world’s population now lives in urban settlements; contact with the environment is becoming rarer. The resuls outlined by the University of Essex suggest that access to local greenspace should be prioritised in the design of sustainable towns and cities, leading to both conservation and health benefits – and therefore benefits for the economy and society.

The researchers’ analysis showed that mood improvements were greatest in participants undertaking light and vigourous activity, suggesting that there is a health benefit from any short engagement in green space. The presence of water generated greater improvements in mood and self-esteem for all participants. The greatest change for self-esteem as a result of exposure to green exercise was in younger participants, with diminishing effects with age. The mentally ill showed one of the greatest improvements in self-esteem, suggesting significant value in encouraging this group to undertake green exercise.

The researchers acknowledge that more needs to be done to disentangle the relative contribution of exercise per se and green environments to the mood and self-esteem alterations demonstrated. Research is also necessary to assess the benefits of undertaking green exercise with other people (social capital) and the benefits of connections with animals. However they conclude that attention should be given to the use of green exercise as a therapeutic intervention on the basis of the evidence presented; that planners and architects should improve access to green space and that children should be given the opportunity to learn in outdoor settings. Shifts in urban design, transport policy, support for social care and parenting can help to embed physical activity as a necessary part of life, and ensure that the public are able to take advantage of the full suite of benefits provided by green space.

Pretty, J., Barton, J. What is the Best Dose of Nature and Green Exercise for Improving Mental Health? A Multi-Study Analysis. Environmental Science and Technology (March 2010).

The Natural Capital Initiative will be organising an event later this year focused on ‘ecosystem services and health’. Further details will be available on the NCI website in due course. To register your interest contact Policy@BritishEcologicalSociety.org.