How does being in ‘quality nature’ contribute to human wellbeing?
It is hard to pick up a newspaper or watch TV without coming across somebody official telling us to take more exercise. The NHS, for example, recommends that someone my age has a mix of “moderate and vigorous-intensity aerobic activity every week (for example two 30-minute runs plus 30 minutes of fast walking), and muscle-strengthening activities on 2 or more days a week that work all major muscle groups”. This is often coupled with concerns about what we eat and drink, and moral panic about obesity and binge-drinking, particularly in the young. Meanwhile, environmental NGOs remind us of the benefits of being outside spending time ‘in nature’. This is good for us in terms of both body and mind – holistic, no less.
Alongside this, we find a renewed focus on learning ‘in natural environments’, on outdoor learning through emphases such as Forest Schools, and the idea of the ‘outdoor classroom’ more generally. It’s important to stress that such ideas have been around for a long while, of course, and although more than 50 years separate the nature walks I did at primary school with the 2005 launch of the government’s sustainable schools initiative with its 8 doorways, and NAEE’s publication of Positive Action, there has been a golden thread of environmental and health education linking these. This has stressed being in the environment, learning from it, and achieving wellbeing because of these. These days, I seem to spend considerable amounts of time sitting reading (and writing) about all this when I really should be up and about, preferably outside. I’m sure it’s not just the pedagogical opportunities that being outdoors offers that makes it attractive to teachers, it’s the fact of being outside as well.
Whilst the basis message is clear – get outside and exercise because it’s good for you and will make you feel better – the detail isn’t. For example, how do different forms of exercise compare in their contribution to wellbeing, and where should we do it? Is being in the gym really not as good as being ‘outside’? And does it matter where that ‘outside’ is? Is an urban park as good as a wildflower meadow, for example? To help thinking about all this, the University of Essex has produced an (internal circulation only) report for the Wildlife Trusts on the contribution that ‘being in nature’ makes to human wellbeing – particularly our being in natural environments rich in wildlife. There is considerable richness in the report and I am sympathetic to its broad conclusions. I take it as read, for example, that we’d all likely be much healthier (in the way that the World Health Organisation [WHO] thinks about these things) if we all spent much more time taking more physical exercise (and more regularly) in the open air.
That said, I was also rather disappointed by the report as I had hoped for greater clarity around what is particularly effective, although I probably expected too much, given the conceptual confusion that besets this subject where words like nature, natural, wild and environment are all used very loosely, even by people who know they should do better. In particular, I regret that the research review was not written in a way that allows readers to see how much confidence they can place in the outcomes of particular studies. I thought section #3.2 on the health and wellbeing benefits to be found in natural environments rich in wildlife much the best in this sense of setting out where there was clarity and uncertainty. This section, and the New Economics Foundation’s [nef] framing of five evidenced-based actions to improve wellbeing (connect; be active; take notice; keep learning; give) was particularly valuable. Here, nef suggests that if each of these were built into daily routines, health and wellbeing would be enhanced.
The key findings of the report are that:
- contact with a wide range of natural environments can provide multiple benefits for health and wellbeing.
- these benefits include improvements to physical health and to psychological and social wellbeing; for example: reductions in stress and anxiety, increased positive mood, self-esteem and resilience, improvements in social functioning and in social inclusion.
- although environments rich in wildlife are associated with improved wellbeing, through emotional, social and psychological benefits, the evidence about whether high biodiversity levels actually contributes to wellbeing is limited.
Overall, I thought that the report added to the confusions. For example, I struggled with the idea of ‘green exercise’, which is defined as activity “in the presence of nature”. What does this mean, given that when we are outdoors, we are inevitably “in nature” to some extent. As noted above, what is being claimed is that exercise is better for us when nature is more pronounced or of higher quality. Running through ‘improved’ grassland (or an urban park) clearly counts as “in nature”, even though the species diversity might be low, but the argument is that the same amount and degree of exercise is better for us when done in a wildlife-rich meadow, even though the evidence for this is not (yet) compelling. Thus, the argument goes, being in-doors on an exercise bike is not as good for us as being in high quality nature, even if we spend the time on the bike gazing out of the window at birds in the garden – despite the physical element of the exercise being the same. There is clearly considerable confusion here.
In the end, you have to ask yourself, assuming that the air is clean, which is better for you:
a session in the gym? a gentle stroll in a wildflower meadow in the company of birds and insects? an hour’s gardening at home or on the allotment? a brisk walk along suburban streets? an indoor exercise bike routine at home? walking or cycling to work? a round of golf? a game of squash? sitting quietly in a wildlife-rich garden? playing football in an urban park? Or an hour in the pub talking and laughing with your friends.
All these sound positive to me, and, happily the last can always be added to any of the others, but herein lies the problem for public policy. Given that the government recommends that, in order to stay healthy, adults should take part in moderate and vigorous-intensity aerobic activity, this implies that this needs to be reasonably local to where we are, irrespective of how nature-poor this is. Thus, is it better to drive to a nature reserve in order to be nature-rich than to compromise on nature quality a bit, and do more exercise nearer home? No one can say.
There is a considerable tension here: the government wants to promote exercise because it good for us, and for the economics of the NHS. Meanwhile, NGOs want to promote contact with quality-nature, because this is also good for us (and them), and they think, on balance and in general terms, that this will lead to nature’s being more valued, which will be very good for us all in the end. Given that these objectives do not coincide, we can expect the tensions to continue. As for me, the last thing I want, on those rare occasions I manage to get to a wildflower meadow in order to walk very slowly through it, is hoards of joggers elbowing me out of the way.
The Wildlife Trusts & the University of Essex (2015) Wellbeing benefits from natural environments rich in wildlife: a literature review.
NAEE (2009) Positive Action: greening the local community; the school as a role model of sustainable living. Walsall: National Association for Environmental Education.