Physical Activity in Nature Found to Prevent Thousands of Illnesses Each Year

Enjoying activity outdoors is a good way to spend time with friends, family, and even your pets. In addition to the fun and connections, though, it can improve your physical health just like any other exercise. It’s also known to increase our mental wellbeing in a variety of ways, including softening the symptoms of depression and anxiety. A new study shows just how substantial these benefits can be for our communities.

Researchers at the University of Exeter examined how many non-communicable diseases are prevented by nature excursions in England each year and what that translates to in cost savings. Using data from the Monitor of Engagement with the Natural Environment survey, which polled a representative sample of more than 47,000 people, the team estimated that 22 million adults in England spent time in nature on at least a weekly basis in 2019.

Woman walks her dogs on beach
PHOTO: PIXABAY / Oleksandr Pidvalnyi

Comparing the visitation figure with epidemiological data, the team estimated that these visits helped prevent more than 10,500 cases of major depressive disorder, more than 1,400 cases of type 2 diabetes, 700-plus cases of ischemic heart disease and stroke, and 78 total cases of colon and breast cancers. That would have come with a societal cost savings – from healthcare, informal care, and productivity losses – of an estimated £108.7 million.

Dr. James Grellier, lead author of the study, published in Environmental International, says, “We believe this is the first time an assessment like this has been conducted on a national scale and we’ve almost certainly underestimated the true value of nature-based physical activity in terms of disease prevention. Although we have focused on six of the most common non-communicable diseases, there are several less common diseases that can be prevented by physical activity, including other types of cancer and mental ill health. It’s important to note that our estimates represent annual costs. Since chronic diseases can affect people for many years, the overall value of physical activity at preventing each case is certainly much higher.”

Woman sits on mountain
PHOTO: PIXABAY / KATE

The study focused particularly on areas like beaches, the countryside, and city or town parks, places where exercise is widely available to people who don’t necessarily enjoy going to the gym or taking part in organized sports, or who lack the ability to access either of those options. According to the United Kingdom’s Office for National Statistics, even urban areas provide nature options, with almost a third of cityscapes in Great Britain comprised of natural land and green space.

The researchers say it may be in governments’ best interests to come up with strategies to increase the visitation and use of natural areas for both health and economic reasons.

Dr. Greiller explains, “We believe that our study should motivate decision-makers seeking to increase physical activity in the local population to invest in natural spaces, such as parks, to make it easier for people to be physically active.”

Group hikes on trail in park
PHOTO: PIXABAY / GIANNI CRESTANI

You can read the whole study here.

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