We’re told from childhood that being outside is good for us, but is this true? Can nature really benefit our health?
Can you remember a time when there wasn’t someone telling you to get more fresh air? From childhood we’re bombarded with this message so frequently that it becomes easy to ignore.
Indeed, statistics from the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne suggest that this is exactly what’s happening. Australian parents spend an average of 39.4 hours a week in front of a screen, and teenagers go one better - racking up 43.6 hours per week.
So, is ignoring granny’s advice a problem? Are there really health benefits in nature? Let’s take a look.
What is health?
To examine whether nature can affect our health, we first need to define health in the first place.
Luckily the World Health Organisation (WHO) has done that for us, describing health as a “state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease”.
So how can Mother Nature help with each of these?
Nature and physical health
Being obese or overweight is a serious public health risk in Australia. In 2014-15, 28 per cent of adults in our country were obese, and nearly a quarter of children.
As well as a healthy diet, exercise is key to countering the multitude of health issues that can result from being overweight. Literature reviewed by Deakin University has shown that access to safe high quality parks led to heightened levels of physical activity, and improved health outcomes. In particular, older adults benefited from park use.
This feeds into a growing body of evidence that those who have greater access to nature are healthier than those who don’t. This doesn’t have to be nature in the grand terms of the great outdoors, and can include green urban areas like parks and reserves.
Nature and mental health
If you feel a connection with nature, you’re not alone. This phenomenon, known as biophilia, acknowledges that people are predisposed to have an affinity with nature.
When it comes to mental health, there are various studies that highlight nature’s benefits in recuperation - the idea that the great outdoors offers an escape from the stresses of modern day living.
There’s also good research that backs up the idea that green spaces can be beneficial in helping conditions ranging from depression to Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)!
Nature and social health
Social health is about having meaningful relationships with those around us. With technology offering so many opportunities to not be social (it doesn’t take two to watch TV, after all), nature is yet again there to offer an alternative.
Research from the Netherlands shows that people with less access to green spaces have greater feelings of loneliness and perceived themselves to have a lack of social support. When you think about it, this all makes sense - green spaces often go hand-in-hand with community and group-based activities that encourage social interaction. Can you remember the last time you had a barbecue in a car park?.
So it turns out granny was right - nature has provable benefits for our physical, social and mental health. And luckily for you Australia has a fair amount of it to offer, so there really are no excuses - get yourself outside this lunch break, and notice the difference.