Feeling Better? How does nature affect our physical and mental health?

Feeling Better? How does nature affect our physical and mental health?

Most of us can attest to nature making us ‘feel better’ – an invigorating hike, a relaxing picnic in the park, even a quick cup of tea in the garden, can restore us – body and mind. But how significant is it? Since we’re scientists, how can we quantify how much better nature makes you feel? Would you get the same health benefits by some time in the gym? Was it the cup of tea, and not the garden that makes a difference?

Nature can also make us feel worse – hay fever sufferers will agree with that – and what about a wasp sting or a twisted ankle? The relationship between our natural environment and human health and well-being is a complex one. But if we get it right, the way we make decisions about our environment could be transformative to our health and economy.

NCI has a long standing interest in this issue. After our inaugural Valuing our Life Support Systems meeting in 2009 we concluded: ‘Ecosystem services underpin human health and well-being so fundamentally that health science and opinion should occupy a strategically important position in policy development, planning and implementation’. Since then we have held several meetings on the topic, and have learnt not only that evidencing the relationship between our natural environment and our health is complex – but in some cases, the way in which the research is conducted is also a challenge; ecologists and medical researchers often work with different ’languages’, research budgets and experimental methods. Also, the interpretation of this research by policy makers can also prove difficult – specifically around how integrate decisions across governmental departments and budgets.

Yet scientists are finding their way through these sticky issues, discovering more and more about this important link between nature and our well-being.  Earlier this year Natural England produced a report showing that ‘taking part in nature-based activities helps people who are suffering from mental ill-health and can contribute to a reduction in levels of anxiety, stress, and depression’. And the recent announcement of the Valuing Nature Programme Health & Wellbeing research projects will add to this growing body of evidence.

The initial call for applications highlighted need to build interdisciplinary capability (being funded by the Natural Environment Research Council, the Economic and Social Research Council and the Arts and Humanities Research Council), as well as engagement with research users.   Here is a quick run-through of the funded projects:

  • CoastWEB – using a mixed methods approach to holistically to value the contribution which coastal habitats make to human health and wellbeing. The project aims to use different approaches, scales and outputs to provide decision makers with a range of information.
  • The Improving Wellbeing through Urban Nature project based in Sheffield will investigate a range of questions about how different neighbourhood, ethnic and socio-economic groups engage with greenspaces, how this affects wellbeing, and what economic implications this may have.
  • The Green Infrastructure to Promote Health and Wellbeing in an Ageing Population (GHIA) project will look at how greening projects in Greater Manchester can be best used to support healthy aging, with a strong focus on how findings can be translated into policy and practice in other cities.
  • Taking the bite out of wetlands’ will explore the both the positive and negative consequences of wetland expansion to human health – given the disease risk associated with an increase in mosquito populations. The project will develop interventions to minimise mosquito related problems in wetlands, within a broader context of the wellbeing value of wetlands to users and stakeholders.

NCI will follow these projects with interest, and we look forward to seeing how they will influence policy and business decisions.

If you have related research on the relationship between the natural environment and human health and wellbeing and would like to share it with our community, please contact us at secretariat@naturalcapitalinitiative.org.uk

Further Reading