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Want to cut health risks and save on medication? Find some nature nearby

Finnish study says nature can help counter a number of health issues, including anxiety, asthma, depression, high blood pressure and insomnia

SHARE Want to cut health risks and save on medication? Find some nature nearby
People take in the warm temperatures at Liberty Park on Sunday, April 28, 2019.

People take in the warm temperatures at Liberty Park on Sunday, April 28, 2019.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

It’s possible that the solution to some of the stress and anxiety troubling folks of all ages is just a stroll through the neighborhood park away. Research continues to suggest that city dwellers could benefit greatly from seeking out the green and blue spaces nearby to improve their sense of well-being.

And while that’s according to a new study from Finland just published in the BMJ journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine, it’s not a surprise to researchers worldwide who have tied nature to health for more than four decades.

What’s new, though, is that getting close to nature may reduce the need for medication to treat a variety of maladies.

The more often people visited green spaces, the less they needed to use psychotropic, antihypertensive and asthma medication, regardless of their socioeconomic status, according to the new research. Being able to look out the window and see nature didn’t make a difference, however, according to the study.

It is experiencing, not seeing, nature that appears to make a difference.

The study was led by researchers from the Department of Health Security in the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare, in collaboration with others from Finland’s academia and health care, among others. They interviewed about 6,000 people in big cities in Finland to learn about the green space (think trees and other greenery) and blue space (water) a short distance from their homes.

Researchers said that visiting nature several times a week was linked to 36% lower odds of using blood pressure medicine, 33% less risk of using mental health medication and 26% lower risk of using medication for asthma.

Study co-author Anu Turunen, a senior researcher at the institute, told CNN that “physical activity is thought to be the key mediating factor in the health benefit of green spaces when availability or active use of green space are considered.”

But Lincoln Larson, an associate professor in the College of Natural Resources at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, pointed out to CNN that the study found associations, not a cause-and-effect relationship between green space and less medicine. The study didn’t say those on medication could stop taking it.

“Perhaps people who were healthier to begin with (and less likely to take prescription drugs) were more likely to get outdoors in the first place,” said Larson, who was not involved with the research.

Still, “mounting scientific evidence supporting the health benefits of nature exposure is likely to increase the supply of high-quality green spaces in urban environments and promote their active use,” the study said. “This might be one way to improve health and welfare in cities.”

Nature that nurtures

In Japan, they refer to immersing oneself in nature as “forest bathing,” the health benefit backed by more than 40 years of research that shows humans need to interact with nature every day to be healthy, as Sarah Hurteau of the Nature Conservancy in New Mexico told the Deseret News in 2019.

The “Growing” series looked at myriad benefits of trees specifically: “Thinking that trees are just pretty is like reading a book jacket instead of the book. Those skinny trunks, resembling spindly legs of adolescent runners, may one day support a canopy that lowers temperatures warmed by city-hot asphalt, scrubs air, filters water, reduces flooding and shelters readers, strolling seniors and kids playing hide-n-seek. They may even slow mental decline.”

The list of benefits has been growing longer by the year.

A Harvard-led study from 2021 in Environmental Research and Public Health says that 30 minutes outdoors can lower blood pressure 10%. Those researchers looked through studies and “found evidence for associations between nature exposure and improved cognitive function, brain activity, blood pressure, mental health, physical activity and sleep.”

And they noted observational studies that see healthy effects from being active in nature, including less heart disease.

This August, researchers from the University of Tokyo said that “the connection between nature and well-being is more significant than previously thought,” as Healthline reported. The findings were published in Science Advances.

Those researchers did a systematic review of peer-reviewed studies and found 301 across 62 countries that showed a linkage between nature experiences and well-being. They also found 227 different pathways by which being in nature improved well-being.

Study co-author Alexandros Gasparatos, associate professor of sustainability science at the University of Tokyo, said that “connecting with nature provides opportunities for recreation and leisure, spiritual fulfillment, personal development, social relations and aesthetic experiences,” according to Healthline.

In 2019, researchers from the University of Michigan published findings in Frontiers in Psychology showing that urban nature experiences reduce stress. They measured two physical markers of stress in saliva.

Study participants picked the time and place, but were asked to spend at least 10 minutes at a time in a natural setting at least three times a week. The greatest benefit was seen between 20 and 30 minutes in a nature-filled setting. Activity like walking seemed less important in that study.

A bit of worry

The researchers from Tokyo, by the way, found some dissonance, as well. Nature’s not always beneficial. Spending time in a park that’s been allowed to run down or being around a murder of noisy crows won’t build up a person’s well-being.

Healthline said the consensus is that two hours — broken up however you want — outside each week is “associated with better health and well-being.”

While nature near you in the city is deemed vital, there’s cause for concern. As Deseret News reported, the share of tree cover is dropping while more and more apartments and other buildings are creating an impervious cover that water can’t penetrate and in which plants cannot grow. The urban forest is disappearing. For instance, between 2009 and 2014, 36 million urban/community trees were lost — a trend that has continued.