The Outside Is Good For Your Inside
There’s no secret to why we at the Farmington Land Trust value open land and the preservation of forests, meadows and the other ecosystems those still-wild spaces support.
We appreciate the visual splendor of the natural world and the diversity of species it harbors. We celebrate and honor our past in the preservation of historic sites. We like the legacy these open spaces will provide future generations.
Green spaces offer carbon sequestration, respite from urbanity, and can serve usefully as flood plains or other functional elements of the larger landscape. We take pleasure in providing home and habitat for the myriad critters that fly, crawl, and walk through the part of the world we share with them. Those rewards are compelling enough for our members and friends that they make donations to help us preservation efforts.
There’s another reason to love the land, one which we have known about, or at least suspected, all along. But this other reason has been a rather elusive concept, one that has proven difficulty to verify definitively, and even more challenging to assign it a value.
As it turns out, open space is boon to our well being. A walk in the woods is more than a good time; it is proven beyond any shadow of doubt to be a measurably health-giving venture. And all the funding and anxiety over health care in our country and around the world begs a question: why aren’t we investing in what we know makes people healthy? How do we start convincing cities and governments and perhaps even the health acre industry to invest in nature from a public health perspective?
Currently most health care dollars go to treatment rather than prevention. But putting money toward prevention may in the long run be a far better investment in improving public health.
First, it helps to understand just how beneficial green spaces can be. In our increasingly city-centric world, where 70% of the population is expected to live in an urban area by 2050, open space, alive and green, is a proven antidote to the stresses of urban living.
One of the longest ongoing epidemiological inquiries on record, the Nurses’ Health Study, followed 121,700 female registered nurses since 1976 (and 116,000 female nurses since 1989) to assess risk factors for cancer and other disease. The studies are among the largest investigations into risk factors for major chronic diseases in women ever conducted. Participating organizations from the Massachusetts medical community include the Harvard Medical School, Harvard School of Public Health, and several Harvard-affiliated hospitals, including Brigham and Women's Hospital, Dana–Farber Cancer Institute, Children's Hospital Boston, and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. The study began in 1976 and included nurses from 11 states (Connecticut was one of the participants). Detailed questionnaires, completed every two years, covered broad aspects of their health including mental and physical health, health care, etc.
The resulting data can be crunched in all kinds of ways, but since the study included the locations of the subjects, some researchers zeroed in on living conditions, more specifically the subjects’ proximity to green, open spaces such as parks or woodlands.
Overall, researchers found a 12% reduction in combined forms of mortality for subjects who had have greenness within 250 meters of their home. There was a slight fall off as the distance to green stretched to 1250 meters, then a more pronounced decline in beneficial effect.
Among the findings was that vegetation’s mitigating effect on air pollution reduced risks not just on respiratory illness but was also directly related to reductions in preterm births, Parkinson’s, and dementia. It reduced incidence of depression by about 7%; hypertension by almost 10%. Risk of kidney disease declined 34%. Obesity was less common, cardiovascular health was better. There was less likelihood of problems in mental and emotional wellbeing. For children, the research shows that outdoor play has physical, mental, and social benefits for children, from decreasing the risk of developing lifestyle diseases such as obesity and heart disease, to better academic performance, increased attention span, improving self-esteem, and feeling more connected to nature. In terms of public health, green is good.
These outcomes may not result from mere proximity to greenness, but were documented in subjects who spent at least 30 minutes once a week in outdoor activity. The nearness of green and open spaces meant that it was more likely subjects would take advantage of them.
There remains a need to put a finer point on what is behind these findings. What is the minimum threshold for exposure to nature to yield improved health? Is there an optimal amount of time and frequency to spend engaged in outdoor activity? How much does the density of vegetation in the green area effect outcomes? Is a biodiverse forested ares better for your health than a park filled with greenswards and smaller plantings of trees and shrubs?
So questions persist, but there’s little doubt that green spaces, like those preserved by the Land Trust and the Town of Farmington, contribute to making a healthier local population. In recognition of the outdoor advantage, at least three conservation organizations are moving toward the prescriptive use of exposure to nature to increase overall health.
Appalachian Mountain Club has inaugurated AMC Outdoors Rx, a program to provide healthcare professionals dedicated tools for prescribing outdoor activity, including a prescription for the outdoors and a map showing local green spaces for families to explore. The program includes an online resource with ideas for nearby outings, and eliminates the biggest barriers to getting started — cost and experience — by regularly offering local, guided programs which are free. Outdoors Rx has been funded Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, Boston Medical Center, and others. Similarly, the National Park Service has National ParkRx, and the Sierra Club has started targeting programs for inner city youth.
As these kinds of programs become more widespread and their results better known, more and more health providers may be willing to help underwrite them and, ultimately, to help financially in the preservation and stewardship of the green spaces that offer health benefits for anyone willing to take advantage of them. The open spaces owned by the Farmington Land Trust, with their proximity to the UCONN Health Center, would seem a natural venue for the kinds of cooperative research studies that would further cement and perhaps monetize the growing clarity of the link between health and the natural world.