Making the scientific link between the natural environment and good human health
For centuries, common wisdom has held that spending time in nature - walking through forests, strolling along the beach, breathing fresh air - can be good for one's body, mind and spirit. Seeking to support this belief with fact, researchers are working to better understand the science behind the medicinal and therapeutic properties of the natural environment.
As people today are facing new and more difficult health problems – as is the environment – an EU-funded research project is looking for new ways to maximise how the former can benefit from what remains of the latter. By investigating the link between exposure to the natural outdoor environment and improved human health and well-being, the PHENOTYPE project is working to help decision-makers plan residential areas that incorporate as much “green and blue space” – such as forestland and lakes – as possible.
The project’s team is setting about to probe a wide range of fundamental questions that still lack complete answers, such as: Why does nature positively influence health? Which types of nature can influence health? What happens in the brain when people see nature?
“We know a lot about what has negative effects on people’s health, so it’s nice to be looking at what can be positive for it,” said Mark Nieuwenhuijsen, an environmental epidemiologist and coordinator of Air Pollution Programme at the Center for Research in Environmental Epidemiology (CREAL) in Barcelona. Nieuwenhuijsen is the coordinator of PHENOTYPE, which stands for “Positive Health Effects of the Natural Outdoor Environment in Typical Populations in Different Regions in Europe”.
“So far, scientific research on the connection between the environment and better health has been is limited. We don’t know exactly what kind of space is most beneficial, and what the underlying mechanisms responsible for it are,” Nieuwenhuijsen said. “We’re looking at questions like – why it works, how big and where the forests or parks need to be, and what they need to look like.”
Research in this field began simplistically enough in the 1980s, when laboratory subjects had their blood pressure and heart rates checked after being shown photographs of nature scenes. The next phase was to take people on walks through the woods and then measure their vital signs. In both types of experiments, Nieuwenhuijsen said, experiencing or even looking at pictures of nature was shown to have calming effects on people.
Researchers have since come to learn that people who live in areas with green space generally are healthier than those who live in areas with little or none. The current challenge of the PHENOTYPE team is to figure out specifically what types of green and blue spaces can maintain or improve people’s health – and, more importantly, how and why this phenomenon happens.
One of PHENOTYPE’s experiments involves equipping people who live in urban areas with smartphones that can measure their physical movements. This will help to determine whether they are more healthy simply because they are more physically active, or whether other factors may be at work, Nieuwenhuijsen said.
Through a range of other research projects and experiments, the team will look at health conditions such as stress, obesity, cancer, and cardiovascular and respiratory problems, and try to determine whether lower or higher levels of these relate to the amount and type of green or blue space, and to factors such as the amount of physical activity, social interaction and environmental pollution.
“Our final goal is to confirm that there indeed is a relationship between green and blue spaces and health, and to recommend the type and quality of green and blue spaces,” said Nieuwenhuijsen. “It’s important for our findings to have practical use, and that we involve people who design and develop green spaces right from the beginning.”
“The potential positive health impacts in all parts of the world are significant;” he said. “We hope our results will inspire people to bring more nature into the living environments of people.”
PHENOTYPE is comprised of a consortium of eight research institutes with a wide range of skills and backgrounds from Lithuania, Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland, the UK and US. A four-year project that began in January 2012, PHENOTYPE has a total budget of €4.5 million, of which the EU is contributing €3.5 million.
Project acronym: PHENOTYPE
Participants: Spain (Coordinator), Lithuania, Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland, United Kingdom, United States