Spending time outside has positive health effects, study finds

Living close to nature and spending time outside has significant and wide-ranging health benefits, according to new research from the University of East Anglia.

A new report published July 6 in the journal Environmental Research reveals that exposure to greenspace reduces the risk of type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, premature death, preterm birth, stress, and high blood pressure.

Populations with higher levels of greenspace exposure are also more likely to report good overall health, according to global data involving more than 290 million people.

Lead author Caoimhe Twohig-Bennett, from UEA's Norwich Medical School, said spending time in nature certainly makes us feel healthier, but until now the impact on our long-term wellbeing hasn't been fully understood.

The research team studied data from 20 countries including the UK, the U.S., Spain, France, Germany, Australia, and Japan.

Green space was defined as open, undeveloped land with natural vegetation as well as urban greenspaces, which included urban parks and street greenery.

The team analyzed how the health of people with little access to green spaces compared to that of people with the highest amounts of exposure. Researchers found that spending time in, or living close to, natural green spaces is associated with diverse and significant health benefits. It reduces the risk of type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, premature death, and preterm birth, and increases sleep duration.

People living closer to nature also had reduced diastolic blood pressure, heart rate and stress, said Twohig-Bennett. In addition, exposure to greenspace significantly reduced people's levels of salivary cortisol, a physiological marker of stress.

Although researchers have looked at a large body of research on the relationship between greenspace and health, they don't know exactly what it is that causes this relationship, said Twohig-Bennett.

"People living near greenspace likely have more opportunities for physical activity and socializing. Meanwhile, exposure to a diverse variety of bacteria present in natural areas may also have benefits for the immune system and reduce inflammation.

Much of the research from Japan suggests that phytoncides, organic compounds with antibacterial properties. released by trees could explain the health-boosting properties of Shinrin yoku or “forest bathing,” a popular practice in Japan.

Study co-author Andy Jones, PhD, also from UEA, said we often reach for medication when we're unwell, but exposure to health-promoting environments is increasingly recognized as both preventing and helping treat disease.

“Our study shows that the size of these benefits can be enough to have a meaningful clinical impact,” he said.

The research team hopes that their findings will prompt doctors and other healthcare professionals to recommend that patients spend more time in greenspace and natural areas.

"We hope that this research will inspire people to get outside more and feel the health benefits for themselves,” said Twohig-Bennett. “Hopefully our results will encourage policymakers and town planners to invest in the creation, regeneration, and maintenance of parks and greenspaces, particularly in urban residential areas and deprived communities that could benefit the most."