How smart city people use nature to enhance their health and wellbeing

You must have heard that nature is good for your health, both physical and mental. However, here we explore, what evidence is there to support that? How does city living relate to that and what can be done? What factors do you need to consider as an individual to benefit your mental health using nature and what can be done at a community, national or even international level to support this. Who needs to get involved?

This week on the 5th of June we celebrate the World Environment Day! Now, I am aware we are a medical blog for City Girls and Boys. Aka adults working in a major city like London, where we are based, in one of the city-based disciplines such as law, finance, media etc. However, the issues are obviously transferrable if you live in New York, Dubai, Paris, Sydney, Doha or any other major city.

If you have been following us, you would know that we are very much an evidence-based medicine clinic that conveys you only information backed by medical research, to which we take a holistic approach. We believe in the interface between different disciplines and that health is ironically both simpler and more complex than we think. It is complex because there are way too many issues around us that affect it. It is also simple because there are always simple remedies and lifestyle changes that can be implemented alongside or prior to starting medications or more radical treatments.

So, first of all, what does the research say?

In a paper published in 2017 by Cox et al, found that several aspects of contemporary lifestyles are associated with reduced routine nature contact. One is urban living. Cities are centres of prosperity, employment opportunities, access to education, health and human services, and cultural advancement, all aspects of life that may promote mental health. However, they can also be associated with decreased access to nature, especially for individuals living within poor urban areas.

In a paper published in July 2019, Gregory N. Bratman et al summarise evidence from 273 studies on this topic. They found that the body of evidence supports an association between common types of nature experiences and an increased psychological wellbeing. Spending time in nature was also associated with a reduction of risk factors and severity of some types of mental illness especially affective disorders such as anxiety and depression. They also found that these opportunities were unfortunately decreasing for many people. This is mainly due to people being increasingly concentrated in urban areas, sedentary lifestyles, increased time spent on screens and long working hours indoors. They also refer to self-limitations such as fear of being outside or a belief in time poverty and lack of investment in wellbeing.

With respect to general health, studies have found that models are already starting to be applied within these contexts. Examples include urban tree canopy restoration to improve air quality, the siting of new park locations to improve physical activity, and efforts to use environmental investments to advance health equity.

So, that’s the theory, what about in practice?

Spending time in nature has been found to help with mental health problems including anxiety and depression. Clinical observations have shown that nature sessions for people suffering with mental illness can help with mild to moderate depression. This might be due to combining regular physical activity and social contact with being outside in nature. Being outside in natural light can also be helpful if you experience seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression that affects people during particular seasons or times of year.

So, what can you do to help yourself?

Spending time in green space or bringing nature into your everyday life can benefit both your mental and physical wellbeing. For example, doing things like growing food or flowers, exercising outdoors or being around animals can have lots of positive effects. It can improve your mood, reduce feelings of stress or anger and help you take time out and feel more relaxed. It can also obviously improve your physical health and help you be more active and make new connections.

Who else needs to be involved and what can be done at a larger scale?

Diverse stakeholders, including city planners, landscape architects, engineers, parks departments, developers, infrastructure providers, health professionals, community-based organizations, and environmental advocates, could use a tool that helps them anticipate the mental health impacts of decisions they make relating to the environment. Although the magnitude and distributions of these impacts are still questions requiring further research, practitioners are nonetheless in need of the best available evidence to inform decisions that may have repercussions for mental health. Reports are beginning to be generated in response to this demand, including a recent example in which the relative value of mental health benefits was calculated to be 7% of the total economic benefits of London parks, a large fraction (amounting to ca. £6.8 billion over 30 years) given that the major economic benefit considered was higher property values.

And, on a final note, if you take only a few points from this article, I’d make them these:

  • Nature is good for both your physical and mental health and there is research evidence for that, so it’s not just a vague misty urban myth.
  • Finding time to spend in nature is particularly important to you if you are a city girl or boy with a desk job in the city.
  • Exercising in the park, having a picnic with friends by the beach (Sydney/LA/Dubai folks), growing flowers or connecting with animals are all forms of connecting with nature, so take your pick!

Stay healthy, Dr Houda Ounnas

-Bratman et al, Nature and mental health: An ecosystem service perspective. SCIENCE ADVANCES 24 JUL 2019 : EAAX0903
-D. T. C. Cox, H. L. Hudson, D. F. Shanahan, R. A. Fuller, K. J. Gaston, The rarity of direct experiences of nature in an urban population. Landsc. Urban Plan. 160, 79–84 (2017)
-Vivid Economics, Natural Capital Accounts for Public Green Space in London (Vivid Economics, 2017)

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