We know spending time in nature is good for you — from stress reduction to absorbing vitamin D to giving you more energy. But researchers have also concluded that being surrounded by greenery can have a serious impact on long-term health and well-being.
A meta-analysis looking at dozens of studies around the health impacts of being in nature showed exposure to green space carries a reduced risk of Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, premature death and preterm birth as well as increasing sleep duration. Green space exposure was also associated with reduced diastolic blood pressure, heart rate and stress.
Caoimhe Twohig-Bennett, the researcher behind the study, grew up in a town in the Mourne Mountains in Northern Ireland. “I spend a lot of time in or surrounded by green spaces. I knew being outside made me feel more relaxed and rejuvenated, but I didn’t realize exactly how good the health benefits were until undertaking this research,” she says. “So it came as a pleasant surprise to find that living close to or spending time in green space could be associated with so many benefits to both short- and long-term health.”
WHAT IS GREEN SPACE, EXACTLY?
Green space, as defined by the study, simply means space in nature primarily surrounded by greenery — that means hitting the trails might be even more beneficial than pounding the pavement for runners. (Or, at least, vary your run routine to get into public parks and green spaces in your city if you can’t make it to a forest.)
“One of the great things about spending time in parks and green spaces is that it’s free,” adds Twohig-Bennett. “Furthermore, there is some evidence to suggest that exercising in the outdoors is more beneficial for health than exercising in an indoor or gym environment.”
In recent years, trail running has exploded in popularity, suggesting that even before the results were scientifically validated, people found being out in the woods and on the trails simply made them feel better than spending days plugging along on the treadmill.
Because the study redefined ‘green space’ slightly to include a more urban definition, Twohig-Bennett said the common theme throughout the studies she analyzed was greenery — trees, shrubs and grass. The most intriguing concept she found covered in dozens of studies was the ‘shinrin yoku’ practice — otherwise known as forest bathing.
“It’s common practice in Japan and other Asian countries, and literally translates as ‘taking in the atmosphere of the forest,’” she explains. “Subjects walked, sat or even lay down in a forest and scientists examined the impact of this on their health. The results were very interesting: Participants not only felt better, but had reduced blood pressure, heart rate and stress, with results visible on other biomarkers in the blood, too. This suggests that even a short time spent in a forest can be great for your health.”
Even if you can only jump into the woods for a short section of singletrack on your run, it’s well worth the detour to get into a green space and boost the health benefits of your run.
“We certainly know that getting outside feels good,” Twohig-Bennett concluded. “However, I don’t think we realized how great the impact of nature on long-term health and well-being would be.”