Time in nature can improve people’s health, and green social prescribing can reduce isolation and loneliness, according to researchers at University College London (UCL).
In a review of evidence commissioned by NHS England, the researchers highlighted ‘strong and consistent’ evidence that shows how green space around the home is associated with lower rates of death for any reason.
The researchers examined the links between time spent in nature and the mental and physical health and well-being of adults and children. They found strong evidence that spending time in nature was particularly beneficial to children, resulting in higher levels of physical activity, well-being and cognitive performance.
‘Green social prescribing’ supports people to engage in nature-based activities to improve their physical and mental health. These interventions can increase social connectedness, as well as increasing feelings of happiness and well-being, all of which can benefit long-term health outcomes.
The review used evidence from high-quality social prescribing studies, which looked at the experiences of thousands of people to understand how nature affected them in order to examine the potential role of green social prescribing and how it can support those experiencing health inequality.
Professor Helen Chatterjee, lead author of the review from UCL said: ‘These reviews draw on a wide range of evidence to show that spending time in nature is good for our mental and physical health, and that green social prescribing supports social connections and reduces isolation and loneliness.’
She added: ‘One recent study showed that spending 120 minutes per week benefits your health and wellbeing. Another study showed that adults and communities exposed to local green spaces show a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes and obesity and an increased likelihood of physical activity. Gardening has been shown to be particularly beneficial to both physical and mental health.’
The studies show that time spent in nature can improve mental health by improving well-being, happiness, resilience and reduced social isolation. In addition, exposure to nature can lead to a decrease in symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) when offered alongside therapeutic and mindfulness activities.
Physical health benefits of living close to nature include lower levels of heart or respiratory problems, lower blood pressure, lower levels of stress and physical symptoms of stress, lowered risk of diabetes and obesity, Covid-19 and slower cognitive decline.
The researchers found that it is not just time spent in nature that improves our physical and mental health, but also how we think and feel about nature can affect general health too. A connection to nature appears to be associated with improvements in general health, but the researchers state that more work is needed in this area.
Despite clear evidence that nature can increase children’s well-being, there are still barriers to access, such as poor local provisions and complex societal issues, which result in reduced opportunities for children to be in nature and ultimately increased health inequalities.
James Sanderson, director of community health and personalised care at NHS England, said: ‘We have been promoting the wide range of physical and mental ill-health benefits of nature-based activities, particularly with examples across the country through our Green Social Prescribing Test and Learn sites to tackle and prevent mental ill-health.
‘To now see this evidenced in this report, it provides the health and care system with the foundation to encourage a wider rollout reaching into areas who may experience health inequalities and support people and what matters to them.’
The researchers suggest that there needs to be more research examining different referral pathways to green social prescribing, but the current review suggests that ‘green’ interventions for mental health are cost-effective and result in savings for society.