The Benefits of a Lunch Hour Walk
19 January 2017
Having a nice garden can save your life, according to a major new study which adds to evidence that living in a natural environment is good for human health.
The researchers found that women living in areas with the most vegetation had a 34 per cent lower rate of death from respiratory diseases and a 13 per cent lower mortality rate from cancer, compared to people who had the least amount of vegetation around their homes.
'We were surprised to observe such strong associations between increased exposure to greenness and lower mortality rates,' expert says
Greenery was also thought to have a significant positive effect on mental health.
The academics, from Harvard University’s public health graduate school and Brigham and Women's Hospital, suggested their findings should encourage city planners to incorporate space for plants to grow when designed new urban areas.
The study used medical information about more than 100,000 women on the Nurses' Health Study in the US between 2000 and 2008.
Their risk of mortality was then compared with the level of vegetation around their homes, which was measured using satellite imagery. Other factors such as age, socio-economic status, smoking, race and ethnicity were taken into account, the researchers said.
Peter James, a research associate at the Harvard Chan School, said: “We were surprised to observe such strong associations between increased exposure to greenness and lower mortality rates.
“We were even more surprised to find evidence that a large proportion of the benefit from high levels of vegetation seems to be connected with improved mental health.
"We know that planting vegetation can help the environment by reducing wastewater loads, sequestering carbon, and mitigating the effects of climate change.
“Our new findings suggest a potential co-benefit – improving health – that presents planners, landscape architects, and policy makers with an actionable tool to grow healthier places.”
The study, published online in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, suggested the lower chance of death could be the result of a number of factors, including mental health. They estimated that 30 per cent of the benefit from living near vegetation came from lower levels of depression.
Other factors could be lower exposure to air pollution – plants can mop up some harmful small particles in exhaust fumes for example – less noise, increase chances of social interactions and greater opportunities for physical activity.
In 2013, Exeter University scientists using an MRI scanner to monitor people's brains came up with a possible explanation for 'urban stress'.
They found that an area of the brain associated with being in a calm, meditative state was activated when people were presented with photographs of natural landscapes. In contrast, images of urban environments resulted in a significant delay in reaction, before a part of the brain involved in processing visual complexity was activated as the viewer tried to work out what they were seeing.
At the time, Professor Michael Depledge, a former Environment Agency chief scientist, suggested people living in urban areas could be suffering in the same way as animals kept in captivity.