Spending time in nature is associated with a wide range of significant health benefits, according to a new study by researchers at the University of East Anglia in England.

The findings, published in the journal Environmental Research, reveal that exposure to nature may increase sleep duration, lower stress and reduce the risk of type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, premature death, preterm birth and high blood pressure. Populations with more green-space exposure are also more likely to report good overall health.

The researchers analyzed data from 20 countries including the United Kingdom, the United States, Spain, France, Germany, Australia and Japan, a country where “forest bathing” (Shinrin yoku) is a popular practice.

“Spending time in nature certainly makes us feel healthier, but until now the impact on our long-term well-being hasn’t been fully understood,” said lead author and doctoral student Caoimhe Twohig-Bennett from UEA’s Norwich Medical School.

“We gathered evidence from over 140 studies involving more than 290 million people to see whether nature really does provide a health boost.”

For the study, “green space” was defined as open, undeveloped land with natural vegetation as well as urban green spaces, which included urban parks and street greenery.

The researchers observed how the health of people with little access to green spaces compared to the health of those with the highest amounts of exposure.

“We 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,” said Twohig-Bennett.

“People living closer to nature also had reduced diastolic blood pressure, heart rate and stress. In fact, one of the really interesting things we found is that exposure to green space significantly reduces people’s levels of salivary cortisol — a physiological marker of stress.

“This is really important because in the U.K., 11.7 million working days are lost annually due to stress, depression or anxiety.”

Still, the research is unclear as to what exactly is leading to these health benefits.

“People living near green space 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,” said Twohig-Bennett.

“Much of the research from Japan suggests that phytoncides — organic compounds with antibacterial properties — released by trees could explain the health-boosting properties of forest bathing.”

Forest bathing is already a popular therapy in Japan with people spending time in the forest, either sitting or lying down, or just walking around.

“We often reach for medication when we’re unwell but exposure to health-promoting environments is increasingly recognised 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,” said study co-author Professor Andy Jones.

The research team hopes their findings will prompt doctors and other health care professionals to recommend that patients spend more time in 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 green spaces, particularly in urban residential areas and deprived communities that could benefit the most.”

Source: University of East Anglia