Look to the Great Outdoors to Reduce Mental Health Problems

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There’s nothing all that pleasant or soothing about living in a busy city with lots of concrete, traffic, and noise, but it turns out that getting out into the great outdoors regularly could significantly help to reduce feelings of anxiety, stress, depression, and other mental health problems urban dwellers may suffer from.

To find proof, researchers from the University of Exeter Medical School conducted a study that involved analyzing the mental health of a group of more than 1,000 people and their living situations over a period of five years. The data was adjust over time to remove how factors like income, employment, and education impacted mental health.

The researchers focused on one group of people that relocated to greener urban areas and another group that moved to urban areas with less green space, only to discover that those who moved to greener areas and spent more time in the great outdoors, showed immediate signs of improved mental health that lasted for a minimum of three years after relocating. When the group of people that moved to less green areas was analyzed, there was a declining trend in mental health experienced right before the move took place, which returned back to normal after the move was done.

“We’ve shown that individuals who move to greener areas have significant and long-lasting improvements in mental health,” Lead researcher, Dr Ian Alcock said about the study. “These findings are important for urban planners thinking about introducing new green spaces to our towns and cities, suggesting they could provide long term and sustained benefits for local communities.”

Up until this point, scientists didn’t know how the health effects of having access to green space varied over time. The research is great news for people who already live in (or plan to move to) areas with adequate green space surrounding them, but it’s a different story for people who don’t — especially if they simply can’t wait long enough for cities to start revamping their neighborhoods and have to stick to living in urban areas due to their jobs, families, or other circumstances.

Anyone who lives in a big city may find that taking a lot of extra time to travel to the nearest park or trail is either extremely inconvenient or downright impossible. But as an alternative option to getting the full experience, walking through any neighborhood that has more trees may be just enough to make a difference in mental health.

According to a recent study from the University of Chicago, the addition of just ten trees per city block could enhance a person’s mental health comparable to increasing their annual income by $10,000, or feeling like they were seven years younger. Like the Exeter study, this one ruled out certain socioeconomic and demographic factors to focus more closely on how neighborhood trees affected people’s mental states.

What’s interesting about this particular study’s data is that it came from Toronto, a city which has universal healthcare. This means that a person’s financial situation doesn’t affect whether they can get proper medical treatment. Both wealthy and poorer neighborhoods with more trees correlated to both better mental and physical health.

Despite these findings, the researchers haven’t been able to pinpoint the exact reason behind why trees make healthier people. For example, it’s possible that people who generally tend to be more health conscious choose to live in neighborhoods with more trees.

“Trees remove pollutants from the air, so it could be the cleaner air, or it could be that adding more trees on the street encourages people to go outside and exercise more,”said Marc Berman, lead author of the study and director of the Environmental Neuroscience Laboratory at the University of Chicago. “Or it could be that the environment is more beautiful, and that contributes to health.”

The Environmental Neuroscience Laboratory has calculated that the addition of ten new trees to a single neighborhood block may cost anywhere from $500 to $3,000. Given that it’s obviously good for improving air quality, increasing property values, and keeping flowing water under control, municipalities and urban planners may be encouraged by the added health benefits of more trees and green space to make that sort of investment sooner than later.

Over half of the world’s population lives in urban areas, which is expected to increase over time. By 2050, it’s been estimated that close to 70 percent of the entire population will be living in or very close to cities.

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Image of woman walking through park via Shutterstock

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