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02 May 2010

A walk a day keeps the doctor at bay

Colchester Campus

Jules Pretty

Just a small ‘dose’ of nature every day will benefit people’s mood, self-esteem and mental health, a new study by the University of Essex has shown. Surprisingly the research found that just five minutes of green exercise produced the largest positive effect.

Previous studies by the researchers had confirmed the links between nature, exercise in green environments, and health benefits. But this study is the first to quantify the health benefits in terms of the best ‘dose’ of nature.

The research by Dr Jo Barton and Professor Jules Pretty is published online (and in print on 15 May) in the American journal, Environmental Science and Technology.

Their analysis of 1,252 people (of different ages, gender and mental health status) drawn from ten existing studies in the UK, showed that activity in the presence of nature (green exercise) led to mental and physical health improvements. The activities analysed were walking, gardening, cycling, fishing, boating, horse-riding and farming.

‘For the first time in the scientific literature, we have been able to show dose-response relationships for the positive effects of nature on human mental health’, said Professor Pretty. The researchers concluded that green exercise should be developed for therapy purposes (green care), that planners and architects should improve access to green space (green design), and that children’s learning should include working in outdoor settings (green education).

‘A walk a day should help to keep the doctor away – and help to save the country money,’ said Dr Barton. ‘There is a large potential benefit to individuals, society and to the costs of the health service if all groups of people were to ‘self-medicate’ more with green exercise.’

Some of the substantial mental health challenges facing society and physical challenges arising from modern diets and sedentary lifestyles (such as the alarming growth in obesity) could be addressed by increased forms of activity in natural places, the authors argue.

The greatest health changes happened in the young and the mentally-ill, though all age and social groups benefited. All natural environments were beneficial (including urban green); although the presence of water generated greater effects. A blue and green environment seems even better for health, the authors stated.

A challenge for policy makers is that recommendations on physical activity are easily made but rarely adopted widely as public policy, said Professor Pretty. Simple prescriptions are unlikely to be adopted by whole populations unless supported by shifts in urban design, transport policy, support for social care, parenting, and patients’ expectations of their doctors. The authors conclude that there is a natural health service available to everyone that complements the National Health Service.

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