Nature and human health

Posted by Tamzin Wood on 26/10/2016

The damaging effect humans have had on natural resources has been more pronounced in the last half-a-century with 60% of the world's biodiversity being decimated. Severe climate change has been one of the fall-outs of this destruction of nature by man and one that we need to reverse. The UK hasn't been spared the effects of such changes as revealed by the State of Nature report recently published. Since the 1970s the UK has witnessed one of the highest losses of biodiversity on the planet.

In recent years there has been a realisation among environmentalists and Government authorities in UK that the natural environment and human health are both intimately connected. There is a growing admission among many that there has been a severe disconnect between man and nature, with resultant negative effects on human health.

A study by a leading group of scientists in the UK has defined nature as the "physical and biological world not manufactured or developed by people". They go on to state that nature is hugely beneficial to the health and wellbeing of everybody on the planet! The study compares the health of those living in urban environs and those in natural settings. It has found that having a connection to nature has positive effects on physical and mental health aspects like mood, heart rate, blood pressure, stress and concentration.

The research also reveals a glimpse of the positive effect of biodiversity. In Sheffield an increased species diversity has been observed and this has had a direct and positive bearing on people’s health and wellbeing. There is even tantalising evidence to that biodiversity may contribute to the development of a healthy immune system.

Scotland has recently been looking into a strategy to increase the number of ‘green’ prescriptions that are used in mainstream NHS services. This includes a project undertaken over the past couple of years by Forest Enterprise Scotland, who have been running an initiative providing woodland activities for people with early-stage dementia.

Lack of access to sufficient green spaces in many parts of Britain is one of the reasons some areas experience health inequality costing the Exchequer up to £70 billion each year. A recent study revealed that people, especially children, living closer to green spaces have displayed heightened physical activity and are less likely to experience a higher Body Mass Index (BMI) in future thus reducing the strain on the NHS.

Regular exercise in more natural or green environments rather than in closed spaces has the potential to improve mental health by as much as 50%. More exposure to natural spaces also has a positive effect on stress levels, can improve concentration and reduce feelings like anxiety, depression and loneliness.

A UK study in 2007 titled “RSPB Natural Thinking” report found overwhelming evidence of the positive role of natural environments in treating behavioural traits like poor self-discipline, limited attention-span and hyperactivity disorder especially among children. 

The assent even among medical practitioners is to emphasize the need to spend less time in front of screens, be it TV, computers or handheld gadgets and more time with nature. A scary 2015 report by Childwise found that by the time children reached the age of seven they had spent as much of one year of their short lives in front of their screens.

If this isn't a wake-up call, then what is?

There are promising initiatives already underway that are demonstrating the importance of the positive effect of wildlife and nature on our health and wellbeing. Tangible cost savings for the NHS can be achieved and huge improvements in our development designs and open spaces are two immediate positive outcomes. The added benefit is that we would also see positive impacts on biodiversity and potentially the reversal of species declines.