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Why living around nature could make you live longer

(The Washington Post, April 19, 2016)

This photo taken on October 18, 2008 shows the sun peeking through a canopy of trees on Skyline Drive in Shenandoah Park, Virginia. (KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images)

Living closer to nature is better for your health, new research suggests — and may even extend your life. 

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.

[How Earth itself has upped the stakes for the Paris climate accord

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.

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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.”

Environ Health Perspect; DOI:10.1289/EHP2613

From Intuitive to Evidence Based: Developing the Science of Nature as a Public Health Resource

Nate Seltenrich

Doctors nationwide have already begun giving their patients “park prescriptions,” instructions to improve their health by spending more time outdoors. 1,2,3 A growing body of evidence suggests that nature, whether the green leaves of a city park or the natural sounds of a back-country wilderness, may help us think better, feel better, and possibly even live longer. 4,5,6 But as the authors of a new commentary in Environmental Health Perspectives posit, before nature can truly be tapped as a public health resource, many critical research questions remain to be answered.7

“The notion that nature contact is good for people is very intuitive,” says lead author Howard Frumkin, a professor of environmental and occupational health sciences at the University of Washington. Proof is another matter, however: “There are some basic elements of this science that are just developing,” he says. “There’s an ironic disconnect between how widely held this view is and how early we are in the scientific verification. It may be true that some exposures are very helpful, and others are of little help. Understanding the layers of truth to this is very important.”

Four photographs of people in various settings near nature
What “dose” of nature is enough, and how should it be “administered” to confer potential health benefits? That’s just one of the avenues of inquiry that researchers need to pursue to advance our knowledge of the human–nature relationship. Images, clockwise from top right: © Image Source/Alamy Stock Photo; © Lumi Images/Alamy Stock Photo; © Terry Bruce/Alamy Stock Photo; © Cultura Creative (RF)/Alamy Stock Photo.

What size and type of “dose,” for example, are required to achieve a health benefit? Do we need to be outside, or is peering through a window at a planted courtyard enough? How about watching nature on a screen? What is it about time with nature that helps us: cleaner air, room to roam, quiet contemplation? How, exactly, do the benefits accumulate: physiologically, psychologically, or in some combination? And do people of different cultures experience nature differently?

These are just a few of the questions raised by the commentary, an interdisciplinary effort from the University of Washington that draws upon environmental health, conservation biology, public policy, pediatrics, forestry, and psychology. The authors take a holistic perspective on a subject that is often expressed in simpler terms, such as the relationship between neighborhood green space and risk of type 2 diabetes, 8 or living near a park and level of physical activity,9 or views of landscaped spaces and relief from stress and mental fatigue.10 Although such linear, reductionist approaches in research are useful, they should be balanced by more complex systems-based thinking, the authors write.

Even more critically, as the examples above illustrate, the field also must work toward more standardized and reliable definitions of nature “exposure,” the authors note, writing, “Despite the centrality of exposure assessment in epidemiologic research, there is little agreement on how best to define nature contact for research purposes, let alone how to measure it.” 7

The implications of getting it right could reach even beyond human health, says study coauthor Josh Lawler, a professor of ecology at the University of Washington. A maturing evidence base could support policies that protect natural landscapes and biodiversity at the same time as human well-being. “Will the aspects of nature that give us these benefits, whether it is stress relief or more rapid healing or other psychological benefits … also provide benefits on the conservation and biodiversity side as well?” he asks.

Rooted in environmental health, the field is indeed growing more interdisciplinary—and for good reason, says Valentine Seymour, a Ph.D. candidate at University College London who authored a 2016 review of research into the relationship between nature and human health. 11 “I found quite a lot of existing studies across a broad spectrum of disciplines, and there is a need to bring these together,” she says. “Examining the human–nature relationship from a single disciplinary perspective could lead to partial findings that neglect other important sources.” By contrast, adopting mixed-method approaches and what Seymour calls a “pragmatic outlook” accounting for real-world political, economic, and social forces should support the field’s continued growth.

Payam Dadvand, a senior researcher at the Barcelona Institute for Global Health who was not affiliated with the new commentary, agrees that an important goal going forward will be designing studies whose results can be readily translated into policy. “For example,” he says, “a ten-tree increase around a residential address gives X amount of benefit.”

Local governments in the Pacific Northwest are already clamoring for guidance in designing green infrastructure that can protect both water quality and human health, says coauthor Bobby Cochran, executive director of the Portland, Oregon–based nonprofit Willamette Partnership. 12,13 “They are seeing the body of research out there that’s showing that there are benefits, and they are saying, ‘Great, tell me how best to direct my investment.’”

Nate Seltenrich covers science and the environment from Petaluma, California. His work has appeared in High Country News, Sierra, Yale Environment 360, Earth Island Journal, and other regional publications.


1. Seltenrich N. 2015. Just what the doctor ordered: using parks to improve children’s health. Environ Health Perspect 123(10):A254–A259, PMID: 26421416, 10.1289/ehp.123-A254.

2. Richards K. 2017. How nature heals: why East Bay doctors are prescribing the outdoors to people of color. East Bay Express, News & Opinion section, online edition. 18 May 2017. https://www.eastbayexpress.com/oakland/how-nature-heals-why-east-bay-doctors-are-prescribing-the-outdoors-to-people-of-color/Content?oid=6788567 [accessed 31 July 2017].

3. Melamed S. 2017. Philly doctors are now prescribing park visits to city kids. Philly.com, Health—Kids & Family section. 6 July 2017. http://www.philly.com/philly/health/kids-families/why-philly-doctors-are-prescribing-park-visits-to-city-kids-20170706.html [accessed 31 July 2017].

4. James P, Hart JE, Banay RF, Laden F. 2016. Exposure to greenness and mortality in a nationwide prospective cohort study of women. Environ Health Perspect 124(9):1344–1352, PMID: 27074702, 10.1289/ehp.1510363.

5. Hartig T, Mitchell R, de Vries S, Frumkin H. 2014. Nature and health. Annu Rev Public Health 35:207–228, PMID: 24387090, 10.1146/annurev-publhealth-032013-182443.

6. James P, Banay RF, Hart JE, Laden F. 2015. A review of the health benefits of greenness. Curr Epidemiol Rep 2(2):131–142, PMID: 26185745, 10.1007/s40471-015-0043-7.

7. Frumkin H, Bratman GN, Breslow SJ, Cochran B, Kahn PH Jr, Lawler JJ, et al. 2017. Nature contact and human health: a research agenda. Environ Health Perspect 125(7):075001, PMID: 28796634, 10.1289/EHP1663.

8. Astell-Burt T, Feng X, Kolt GS. 2014. Is neighborhood green space associated with a lower risk of type 2 diabetes? Evidence from 267,072 Australians. Diabetes Care 37(1):197–201, PMID: 24026544, 10.2337/dc13-1325.

9. Bancroft C, Joshi S, Rundle A, Hutson M, Chong C, Weiss CC et al. 2015. Association of proximity and density of parks and objectively measured physical activity in the United States: a systematic review. Soc Sci Med 138:22–30, PMID: 26043433, 10.1016/j.socscimed.2015.05.034.

10. Li D, Sullivan WC. 2016. Impact of views to school landscapes on recovery from stress and mental fatigue. Landscape Urban Plan 148:149–158, 10.1016/j.landurbplan.2015.12.015.

11. Seymour V. 2016. The human–nature relationship and its impact on health: a critical review. Front Public Health 4:260, PMID: 27917378, 10.3389/fpubh.2016.00260.

12. Wolf KL. 2014. Water and wellness: green infrastructure for health co-benefits. Stormwater Report, The Report section. 2 April 2014. http://stormwater.wef.org/2014/04/water-wellness/ [accessed 4 October 2017].

13. Oregon Solutions. 2017. Jade Greening Project. http://orsolutions.org/osproject/jade-greening-project [accessed 4 October 2017].

Related EHP Article

Nature Contact and Human Health: A Research Agenda

Howard Frumkin, Gregory N. Bratman, Sara

Jo Breslow, Bobby Cochran, Peter H. Kahn Jr, Joshua J. Lawler,

Phillip S. Levin, Pooja S. Tandon, Usha Varanasi, Kathleen L. Wolf,

and Spencer A. Wood

‘Vitamin N’ is essential for children (and parents, too)

By Janet Eastman The Oregonian/OregonLive

April 30, 2016

 I hope you’re reading this review outside because the whole point of Richard Louv’s inspiring new book, “Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life: 500 Ways to Enrich the Health & Happiness of Your Family & Community” ($15.95, Algonquin Books), is getting us to spend more time in the natural world.  As the title implies, the book has a health emphasis. Louv cites studies that gardening, taking a walkabout or just sitting under a tree engages our brains, helps us focus and releases stress.  Kids who connect to the natural environment have less of a chance of having to battle obesity, drug use and risk-taking behavior, according to Bend pediatrician Mary Brown, who is quoted in the book.  The 304-page paperback offers 500 ways we can ease into the outdoors. Louv suggests children take parents or grandparents on an insect safari or become weather warriors who understand clouds as forecasting signs.  Other natural prescriptions are sure to delight tiny Thoreaus, from tossing seed bombs to a good old-fashioned roll down a grassy hill to making mud pies. It’s a world of look and touch (except maybe the exploration of animal scat).  Louv is the author of “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder,” and he co-founded the Children & Nature Network. He coaxes adults to transition from being helicopter parents to hummingbird parents who let little ones brave the wilderness while allowing time and space for purposeful as well as silly play.  Most of his ideas are free and freeing. As he notes, biodiversity exists in the Amazon rain forest but also in a backyard. There’s not much planning needed to execute his ideas, except creating a family G.O. (Go Outside) duffle bag with maps, water bottles, and maybe a snack.  As for cost, he’s a big advocate of visiting free public parks, playing with found objects and competing in a friendly game of Poohsticks in a stream of water.  Growing food doesn’t need to be pricey either. Little farms can sprout up in a reusable container or even a pair of old socks.  Most of Louv’s throw-caution-to-the-wind suggestions contribute to relaxing, creative, unplanned adventures.  But if you want to prepare for a wildlife experience, each paragraph-long idea comes with a guide, resource or website to learn more on the topic, such as family nature clubs, nature-focused camps and geocaching. He endorses using natural sign posts such as stars, shorelines and mountains along with compasses and maps to navigate. But he’s not a Luddite. If you must drag along a cellphone, let it record nature’s images and sounds to enjoy off the trail. This easy-to-flip-through book will no doubt inspire numerous adventures and outings led by little ones. 

What We Still Don’t Know about the Health Benefits of Nature


ASLA 2017 Professional General Design Award of Excellence. Klyde Warren Park, Dallas, OJB Landscape Architecture / Gary Zonkovic Photography

We know that connecting with nature is good for us, but there are still many questions that need to be answered through more credible scientific research: What is the ideal “dose” of nature? What health conditions do these doses actually help with? Does duration and frequency of dose matter? How long do the benefits last? Does who you are and where you live impact how beneficial exposure to nature will be? And how does technology help or interfere with our connection to nature?

To get a better handle on the remaining unknowns, leading public health expert Dr. Howard Frumkin assembled a multi-disciplinary team at the University of Washington comprised of experts in epidemiology, environmental health, clinical medicine, psychology, ecology, landscape architecture, urban studies, and other disciplines, along with experts from the Nature Conservancy, Seattle Children’s Research Institute, U.S. Forest Service, Willamette Partnership, Stanford University’s Center for Conservation Biology, and the Natural Capital Project. Together, they crafted a creative, ambitious research agenda, which was just published in Environmental Health Perspectives.

According to Frumkin and the other co-authors, “nature contact offers considerable promise in addressing a range of health challenges, including many — such as obesity, cardiovascular disease, depression, and anxiety — that are public health priorities. Nature contact offers promise both as prevention and as treatment” at all stages of life.

Furthermore, exposure to nature is likely cheaper than “conventional medical interventions,” safe, practical, and doesn’t require a highly-trained professional to dispense treatments. Green spaces designed to provide health benefits of nature also offer many co-benefits: they provide wildlife habitat, store stormwater, or offer shade, for example.

While the benefits of nature are increasingly understood, the team found seven domains where further research is needed. Below are high-level summaries; for greater detail, read the research agenda.

Mechanistic Biomedical Studies: We need to better understand how nature exactly works its magic on us. While some scientists believe the mechanisms, or pathways of impact, on our minds and bodies have an evolutionary origin, meaning they are deep-rooted and associated with our innate biophilia, others posit there may be more precise pathways that are psychological, relate to our immune system, or are linked with increased social contact or improved air quality. We don’t know exactly the way nature exposure works its benefits on us.

Just in terms of psychological pathways, there are a diversity of theories: some argue that nature helps by relieving stress, while others focus on the way nature can relieve mental fatigue. Those are different things. And there could be multiple mechanisms happening at once, too. Frumkin and team argue that with more research “specific neural pathways” for these benefits will likely be discovered.

There is also some research suggesting exposure to nature boosts immune function; physical activity outdoors in a green space is better than in a gym; being in nature promotes the creation of social connections, which in turn provide health benefits; and trees and other green spaces, particularly in cities, reduce air pollution, creating health benefits.

But the research agenda notes that much more evidence-based research is needed to isolate the exact mechanisms through which nature exposure works its theorized benefits.

Exposure Science: Epidemiologists try to measure the “magnitude, frequency, and duration of exposure to an agent, along with the number and characteristics of the population exposed.” When “researching the environmental impacts on people,” research focuses on “pathogens, medications, toxic chemicals, and social circumstances, or salutary exposures such as nature.”

However, they argue that “standard approaches to exposure measurement” have limitations. “First they fail to capture variations in how people in how people experience nature, nuances that may be highly relevant. Suppose that one person sits in a car atop a seaside bluff and admires the view of the beach (while checking email on a smartphone), a second person walks barefoot along the shore, enjoying not only the view, but the feel of the sea breeze and the lapping waves, and a third person plunges in a for a swim. The designation ‘beach contact’ or a measure of ‘time on a beach’ would fall short of capturing the variation in their experience.”

As such, measuring the effects of various doses of nature becomes more complicated — someone paying close attention to all the details while on a forest path and really immersing themselves in the experience and another person simply walking through while looking at their smartphone will “likely ‘absorb’ differing levels of nature.”

Epidemiology of Health Benefits: Epidemiologists, who research the health and disease profiles of populations, conduct “true experiments, ‘natural experiments,’ and observational studies.” The bulk of research on nature contact and health have been observational studies, which Frumkin and his team argue are practical, can be conducted rapidly, and reduce costs of research, given they typically use data collected for other purposes. However, there are also built-in limits to the pre-existing data, and it’s hard to control bias in these studies.

True experiments, which are clinical trials, are the “gold standard” in science. Natural experiments, which “are study opportunities that arise through circumstances outside the investigator’s control” — like Roger Ulrich’s famous study of hospital patients, their views of trees, and recovery times — enable researchers to test hypotheses in realistic settings. More of these studies are needed.

The group also recommends nature and health researchers do a better job of tapping into existing large-scale research studies and data sets; finding new sources of big data, such as using Google Street View, webcams, and location-based data-collection apps like Mappiness; and investing in more advanced statistical analysis and advancing epidemiological research in general.

Diversity and Equity — The Role of Nature Contact: More research is needed to better understand “a) patterns of disproportionate exposure; b) cultural and contextual factors that affect nature preferences; c) differing patterns of benefit across different populations; and d) the possibility that improved access to nature may have unintended negative consequences on vulnerable populations.”

As has been explored by other researchers, low-income communities are more likely than not to also have limited access to nature and green space, which only exacerbates the negative health impacts of poverty, bad diets, lack of exercise, and crime.

African Americans, Frumkin and his team write, may also have different associations with trees, fields, and forests than other groups, due to the legacy of “forced labor, lynchings, and other violence.” 

And livelihoods play a role in creating different understandings of what’s restorative: “a rural farmer has quite different preferences regarding nature from those of an urban computer programmer.”

On the positive side: there is some research that argues that access to nature and green space may disproportionately help those in low-income communities who suffer from unequal access to many services, but, again, more study is needed.

Technological Nature: Modern technologies — the Web, smartphones, games, virtual reality (VR), the list goes on — are altering our relationship with nature. Kids, who spend more and more time glued to their screens, are particularly impacted. But there are also other kinds of technologies  — those that “mediate, simulate, promote, and/or augment the human experience of nature,” which must also be better understood. Computer desktop wallpaper of nature scenes, VR movies in which users go on safari in Africa, and location-based games like Pokemon Go may offer some of the benefits of nature exposure — and may be better than nothing — but more laboratory-based experiments are needed.

Economic and Policy Studies, including Co-benefits: The benefits of nature are increasingly being quantified. As such, policies are being promoted to increase the value of these benefits for communities and ecosystems. Frumkin and the co-authors propose looking to ecological and health economics for new models of evaluation and quantification of the benefits of nature as well as the avoided health care costs.

When the value of a new park is estimated, it’s important that policymakers don’t just look at improvements in real estate value or gains in stormwater credits, but also the real, quantifiable community health benefits. Furthermore, cost-benefit analyses rooted in benefits valuations can help guide limited public funds towards the most effective forms of green space investment.

We couldn’t agree more. It’s critical to answer: What policies and regulations can positively boost the health benefits of nature and which don’t do much at all? Many cities aim to provide a park within a five minute walking distance of every resident. Is this a worthy policy? Toronto just created a shade policy to help reduce the negative health impacts of heat in the summer. What metrics should be used to measure the success of such policies?

Implementation Science — Studies of What Works: “Research findings don’t necessarily translate into action.” This group wants to see more what “intervention studies are needed to determine what works in practice.”

As an example, they point to the U.S. Forest Service’s iTree software, which helps anyone with a computer understand the ecosystem service benefits of the trees they are planting. The researchers ask: “might further development of such tools incorporate additional mental and physical health benefits?”

While this research agenda is impressive and comprehensive, there are a few other unknowns important to include:

First, doctors are now prescribing time in the park. Do these treatments, which often combine increased activity, social interaction, and nature exposure work? Is the combination of exposure, social engagement, and exercise what is key?

Second, what is the impact of climate change on the nature and health connection? As nature becomes a more changeable, and often destructive force, in many places, do we need to differentiate between safe and unsafe nature spaces? Can an ocean that floods a community every year be considered restorative when it isn’t causing damage?

Lastly, there are landscape architecture educators and researchers, like William Sullivan, ASLA, and MaryCarol Hunter, ASLA, who seek to determine which forms and arrangements of landscape elements have the most benefits. Their forward-looking studies are critical: The next step is to translate proven health benefits from nature exposure into design principles planners, landscape architects and designers, and engineers can apply in their work. What designed landscape forms and elements act as pathways to the biggest benefits?