Why living around nature could make you live longer
(The Washington Post, April 19, 2016)
Living closer to nature is better for your health, new research suggests — and may even extend your life.
A study just published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives found that people who live in “greener” areas, with more vegetation around, have a lower risk of mortality. The health benefits are likely thanks to factors such as improved mental health, social engagement and physical activity that come with living near green spaces.
The research relied on data from a vast long-term Harvard study funded by the National Institutes of Health called the Nurses’ Health Study, which has collected health information biennially on more than 100,000 female registered nurses in the U.S. since 1976. The new paper analyzed participant data from between 2000 and 2008, taking note of any deaths that occurred and their causes. At the same time, the researchers used satellite data to assess the amount of green vegetation surrounding each participant’s home during the study period.
The researchers found that people living in the greenest places — that is, people who had the most vegetation within 800 feet of their homes — had a 12 percent lower rate of mortality from any non-accidental cause than people living in the least green places. Specifically, they found that the relationship was strongest for deaths related to respiratory disease, cancer and kidney disease. These results were the same regardless of the participants’ income, weight or smoking status and also did not significantly change between urban and suburban locations.
In statistical analyses, though, the researchers found that participants’ mental health, social engagement, level of physical activity and exposure to air pollution likely explained how the green spaces were making a difference.
This is all in line with the ways previous research has suggested greenness can affect health. Places with more vegetation are generally thought to be less polluted, and the presence of vegetation, itself, can help keep air cleaner. And green spaces like parks can help encourage people to get outside, exercise and engage with other people — all factors that can improve overall health. The effects on mental health may be somewhat less straightforward, but nonetheless important, as this study suggested.
“We were really surprised to find that the mental health pathway explained about 30 percent of the relationship between greenness and mortality,” said Peter James, the study’s lead author and a research associate at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
There are several theories about how nature affects mental health, said Howard Frumkin, dean of the school of public health at the University of Washington, who was not involved with the new study. One of them is known as the “biophilia” hypothesis, which was proposed by renowned biologist and naturalist E.O. Wilson. This theory embodies the idea “that we evolved as a species embedded in nature over most of our existence as a species, and something about that nature contact still resonates with us,” Frumkin said. “Something about contact with nature is soothing and restorative and thereby good for mental health.”
It may also be that the social engagement that green spaces encourage can improve people’s mindsets as well. “Social connectedness is a predictor of good mental health, which is in turn a predictor of good physical health,” Frumkin said.
Still, much remains uncertain about the exact mechanisms by which exposure to nature can improve health, Frumkin noted. And scientists are still trying to figure out what type of contact with nature works best.
“Is a it a view out the window or do you need to get out and walk among the trees?” Frumkin said. “Does a bush do the trick or do you need a tree? Does it need to be in leaf during the summer, or does it work during the winter when it’s lost its leaves? There are lots of questions about the mechanisms and specifically about what form of nature contact offers benefit.”
James and his team hope to continue exploring the finer details in future research. They’re interested in looking more closely at some of the specific causes of mortality revealed in this study, especially cancer, in order to examine not just how greenness is connected to deaths but to the overall incidence of disease.
“We also do want to explore this with other cohorts,” James added. While he and his team controlled for demographic factors in this study, it’s still worth pointing out that most of the participants were white, and since they were all registered nurses, the socioeconomic range within the group was somewhat narrow.
Energy and Environment newsletter
The science and policy of environmental issues.
James added that, while this study focused on greenness around the participants’ residences, it’s worth noting that most people spend a great deal of their time away from the home. So a good idea for future research would be to focus on a broader set of the spaces people interact with on a daily basis.
The challenge with all these ideas for future studies is that research on the health effects of greenness is difficult to get funded, Frumkin said, pointing out that even this study was “a piggyback onto an existing study that’s being funded for other reasons.” He feels that if more resources were afforded to the understanding of human interactions with nature, the health benefits could be immense.
“If we had a medication that did this — a medication that prolonged life, that addressed very different unconnected causes of disease, that did it at no cost and with no side effects — that would be the best medication of the decade,” Frumkin said. “But we don’t have a medication like that except for this ‘vitamin N’ — nature.”
Kids do not spend nearly enough time outside. Here’s how (and why) to change that.
by Collin O'Mara
On Parenting Perspective
As the weather turns warmer and the days are longer, many parents are looking forward to spending more quality time with the family. A great place to start is by taking your kids outdoors — a lot. As the parent of a 6-year old and a 10-month-old, I think a lot about how our family can provide experiences that help them reach their potential. As the head of the National Wildlife Federation, I am also focused on where children spend their time, and how it impacts their lives.
Here is a sobering statistic: The average American child spends five to eight hours a day in front of a digital screen, often at the expense of unstructured play in nature. The good news is departing from this trend is easier than you think, and quality outside time can fit into even the busiest of schedules. It is worth the effort; the benefits go beyond a little time spent in the fresh air.
Over the past few decades, children’s relationship with the great outdoors and nature has changed dramatically. Since the 1990s researchers have noticed a shift in how children spend their free time. The days of the free-range childhood, where kids spend hours outside playing in local parks, building forts, fording streams and climbing trees, have been mostly replaced by video games, television watching and organized activities such as sports and clubs. We have traded green time for screen time — and it has had an impact on kids’ well-being and development. Our approach to raising children has changed as well, as parents who allowed kids to play largely unsupervised from dawn to the dinner bell have yielded to “helicopter parents” who are afraid to allow their children to roam free, because of perceived safety concerns.
So if childhood has changed, why is it still important for kids to spend time in nature? Here are a few of the benefits:
- Better school performance. Time spent in nature and increased fitness improve cognitive function.
- More creativity. Outdoor play uses and nurtures the imagination.
- Much higher levels of fitness. Kids are more active when they are outdoors.
- More friends. Children who organize their own games and participate in unstructured group activities are less solitary and learn to interact with their peers.
- Less depression and hyperactivity. Time in nature is soothing, improves mood and reduces stress. It can also increase kids’ attention span, because things move at a slower pace than they do on the screen.
- Stronger bones. Exposure to natural light helps prevent vitamin D deficiency, making outdoorsy children less vulnerable to bone problems, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and other health issues.
- Improved eyesight. Time spent outdoors can help combat increasing diagnoses of nearsightedness.
- Better sleep. Exposure to natural light, and lots of physical activity, help reset a child’s natural sleep rhythms.
- A longer life span and healthier adult life. Active kids are more likely to grow into active adults.
And the best part, all of these benefits — especially those related to health and well-being — also apply to the adults spending more time with their children outdoors.
Kids who play more outdoors have fuller and more wholesome lives. Often, when they go outdoors they transform. I love watching my older daughter’s smile grow as her senses awake to the sight of birds and butterflies, the smell of flowers and trees and the sounds of water rushing or leaves rustling. Importantly, she gets a vital break from her intense indoor, too often digitized and highly regimented lifestyle.
Here are the NWF’s top tips for helping children and families reap the benefits of spending time outdoors.
- Explore wildlife with Ranger Rick — From colorful birds to playful squirrels, wildlife holds a special fascination for children of all ages. Taking time to learn about and explore local wildlife with the children in your life is a great way to get kids engaged with the natural world and spending time outside. The National Wildlife Federation’s outdoor ambassador Ranger Rick and his friends provide countless ideas for family outdoor adventures at rangerrick.com.
- Commit to a green hour — Whenever possible, set aside an hour of nature play time for kids each day. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control agree an hour of free play and moderate activity daily is a prescription for lasting health. Increasing a child’s time in nature and the outdoors does not have to be a heavy burden for parents and caregivers; a quick stop at a local park on the way home from school, fishing in a local stream, or an impromptu picnic outside all count. More information is available at: nwf.org/greenhour.
- Garden for wildlife in your backyard — Every family, whether they have a windowsill in an apartment or a yard, can take small actions that make a big impact for children and wildlife. Planting native plants and providing wildlife with food, water, shelter and places to raise their young can transform any space into a bustling wildlife destination and help kids cultivate a love of nature: nwf.org/Garden-for-Wildlife.
At a time when parenting can seem fraught with complexities, one of the best things we can do for ourselves and our children is simply opening the door and stepping outside.
Collin O’Mara is the president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation and a father of two. Find him on Twitter @Collin_OMara.