Outdoor Exposure Good for Your Health

The key to better health may be as easy as stepping outside, says one University of Illinois researcher.

In a report for the National Recreation and Park Association, associate professor of natural resources and environmental sources Frances "Ming" Kuo assessed whether exposure to nature actually affects people's physical and mental well-being.

In the past, she argues that research has focused on how participants "feel" rather than objective measures, including blood-pressure readings, standardized cognitive tests and crime reports from police departments.

Exposure to nature increases people's health outcomes even when interest in nature isn't high and when socioeconomic status is considered, she concludes. More green space to enjoy equates to communities with better mental health, a more proactive attitude and a better ability to bounce back from hardships, according to the report.

In one analysis, researchers found parks to be linked to greater trust and cooperation among community members when compared to areas without them.

In general, communities with less green space show the opposite: more cases of depression among residents, higher blood pressure averages and an increased prevalence of anxiety disorders.

At the individual level, access to nature bolsters recovery rates of people who underwent surgery, improves people's immune systems and helps promote physical activity and independence across all ages. Areas with less nature to explore result in higher rates of childhood obesity and cardiovascular diseases.

But what is it about natural spaces that improve our well-being?

Simply put: It's what our species is used to. As pointed out by Kuo and Huffington Post writer Linda Buzzell, humans depend on their environments in the same way as other non-human animals.

Consider efforts to improve captive life for zoo animals, for instance. When qualities of an animal's natural environment are incorporated into its captive habitat, the animal usually lives longer with fewer health and behavioral problems.

The same idea can be applied to our health. Like all other living creatures, humans evolved in nature and are continually shaped by it. Although we possess the ability to adapt to different climates and landscapes, green space still plays a large role in our well-being and happiness.

Kuo advocates for cities and community leaders to create more green space and think twice before tearing down natural spaces unnecessarily.

But, even with more green spaces, there's a catch to making them effective. Although parks are known to generally reduce crime in a given area, neglected or abandoned ones may result in more crime.

It turns out that caring for green spaces might be just as important as creating access to them.