People who study health outcomes (and any parent with common sense) have long known that having access to a green space is important for health — from decreased asthma and obesity to increased immunities and quality sleep, exposure to the outdoors is good for everyone. But a large, growing body of evidence, captured in a new meta-study, reveals that experiences in nature have especially big benefits for mental health. In other words, it might be time that we all thought a little less about the square footage of our homes and more about the size of our yard — or, better yet, adjacency to parks.
Much of the research on the connection between nature and mental health focuses on kids, showing that those who interact with green spaces grow up to be happier and healthier — and those that don’t get that exposure to nature suffer. A study of over 900,000 children, for example, found that children who grow up without access to green spaces are at a 55 percent higher risk for psychiatric illnesses throughout their lives. Other studies suggest that kids who interact with nature are at a lower risk for ADHD as well.
Much of the same can be said for adults. A walk through the woods or a park naturally decreases stress hormones like cortisol and has been found to be a buffer against stress regardless of culture or class. Furthermore, the more time individuals spend interacting with nature, the lower their risk for anxiety and depression. Some data even suggests nature can help angry dads quell their tempers and lower their blood pressure.
And yet, as Gregory Bratman, a professor of environmental sciences at the University of Washington, and his colleagues found in their recent analysis, the average person’s access to nature and green spaces has sharply declined over generations, as mental health demands have mounted. One study estimates that 75 percent of nature interactions were experienced by only half of the population. Other research indicates that children spend three times as many hours in front of screens as they do playing outside. There’s evidence this lack of interaction at an early age can increase long-term fears of nature, further distancing kids from it as they grow up.
It’s worth noting the researchers found a strong correlation between mental health and socioeconomic status, but also the link between poorer areas and a lack of nature, and that this model could be best applied to closing those green gaps first. “Some areas in some cities are nature-deprived,” says Bratman. “Eventually, our conceptual framework could be developed and potentially used to help address health disparities in underserved communities.”
The study authors acknowledge that there are many other important variables that contribute to mental health outcomes, such as genetics, that are not to be discounted based on these findings. Likewise, there are many aspects of nature that can be physically and psychologically devastating that the study didn’t look at, like wildfires, hurricanes, and other natural disasters. Still, these limitations do not change how important green spaces are for everyone’s well-being and the fact that this is one aspect of public health that can be fixed. So as much as the findings reinforce how lucky you might be to raise your family near a decent park, they also argue that you all could use more where that came from.
“We can’t make an overarching, blanket statement regarding the degrees of success to which the considerations of proximity to nature and access to natural environments have been integrated into these decisions in specific cases across the country,” Bratman says. “But we hope that this paper can help to highlight the importance of these considerations.” Here’s one decision that is very much in your control: In the name of health, make plans to take the family for a stroll in the park this weekend.