How nature affects our health

Enjoy some fresh air!

The lyric “the sun is shining and so are you” in the song by the Axwell Λ Ingrosso is currently not entirely accurate. However, we are now beginning to enjoy summer temperatures with plenty of sunshine. Weather like this lures many of us out into the fresh air and areas of natural beauty. Do you like spending time outside too, by the lake, in the forest, beside the river or in a meadow? Do you enjoy hearing nature’s sounds, and feeling the warmth of the sun on your skin, or the cool breeze? And do you ever sit outside on mild summer evenings as the day turns to night?

Have you ever consciously paid attention to how you feel after a day surrounded by green? No? Then it’s high time you did!

Being in nature benefits our mental and physical health in many ways. We have already written about the health benefits of the forest in our article “Shinrin-Yoku”. Now we are expanding our focus to look at the effect on our health of natural areas like parks and bodies of water.


“In every walk in nature, one receives far more than he seeks.”
- John Muir -


Natural areas and health

It has been proven many times over that natural areas protect and promote health. For instance, natural areas such as meadows, forests, parks and bodies of water have a considerable potential to reduce problems associated with air quality by filtering pollutants out of the surrounding atmosphere. Deciduous trees in particular are able to absorb pollutants directly and transform them, or accumulate particles on their upper surfaces – leaves – and discharge them into the ground the next time it rains.
Take a look out of your window – what do you see? Is there a leafy tree near you, or a green space?
If a tree is growing in front of your window, then you have probably got annoyed that it blocks the light or your view at least once. But if you have ever wished that the tree was in a different spot, just remember that it contributes a great deal to improving the air quality in your immediate surroundings. Maybe this will help you to value its existence (even) more in future :-).
Admittedly, closed canopies in city alleys aren’t unequivocally positive, because they may exacerbate air quality problems such as ground level ozone formation on hot days.

These days, noise pollution is also a big problem that can make us ill. This means that green spaces are all the more important in urban areas, because they reduce noise due to the greater distance between the source of the noise and the people exposed to it. The smaller sound reflection and stronger sound scattering due to the comparably rough surface structure are other factors. Additionally, bodies of water and green spaces use the background noise they make themselves (e.g., birdsong, running water, leaf rustling, insect noises) to create a soundscape that we want to listen to. In this way, any otherwise intrusive ambient noise is drowned out and consequently subjectively perceived noise pollution is reduced. According to science, a visual screen from the source of noise will boost this effect, which is why it definitely makes sense to add trees to the soundproof walls lining railway tracks, for example.

A great many studies have investigated the direct and indirect benefits of natural spaces for our wellbeing. Below we will show you a selection of these and will distinguish between mental, physical and social wellbeing.

The effect of nature on mental (psychological) wellbeing

Studies have shown that natural spaces are particularly beneficial for mental wellbeing, which is strongly influenced by the way we individually perceive, evaluate and construct space using components of our experience. This means that it could be proved that experiencing landscape and nature may reduce stress and blood pressure and increase the attention span and concentration. What’s more, science is meanwhile indicating that there is a positive correlation between long-term exposure to green spaces and both the cognitive development of children and the cognitive function of adults.
Not only does being in a natural space improve our attention spans and cognitive functions, our perceived stress levels, our emotions and our psychological stress are also affected. For example, a study showed that positive feelings can be boosted by a walk in the open air, while feelings such as annoyance could be reduced. Various studies indicate that walks in rural environments are better for mood and stress than walks in an urban area.

Nature and our physical wellbeing

Assorted studies show that spending time in natural surroundings results in a drop in blood pressure, blood cortisol levels and other stress hormones, which indicates reduced stress levels. This is confirmed by further studies that investigated the effect of staying in the forest for some time (called forest bathing or Shinrin Yoku). They demonstrated that levels of stress hormones, such as adrenaline and noradrenaline, were reduced during time spent in the forest. Our health can therefore only benefit from time spent in nature. What’s more, natural spaces provide incentives for physical activity.

Social wellbeing and green spaces

Green spaces, above all in urban areas, are public and freely accessible spaces for meeting others, so they benefit our social wellbeing. Urban green spaces and the banks of lakes or rivers are also important meeting places that provide opportunities to make and cultivate social contacts. You can see this just by observing the banks of Lake Zug – everyone, both large and small, enjoys their time there. You meet acquaintances and close friends, or make new ones, at the lake, while enjoying a mild summer evening and watching a glorious sunset. Here you can also observe widely different social groups, side by side or mingling, regardless of age, sex and ethnic origin. That is why urban green spaces like lakeside promenades, parks and so on have great potential for social integration, inclusion and greater acceptance. This cannot be underestimated.

So does this make you want to explore the natural areas around Zug and across the canton and spend time in a green space? Here are a few tips for weekend trips or in the upcoming summer holidays:

Tips for experiencing nature in Zug Canton

You can find more information about where to go in Zug under the heading “topics”.

 

References:
BAFU/BAG (published) 2019: Umwelt und Gesundheit in der Schweiz. Eine facettenreiche Beziehung. Bundesamt für Umwelt und Bundesamt für Gesundheit, Bern. Umwelt-Zustand Nr. 1908: 61 S.
Classen, T. & Bunz, M. (2018). Einfluss von Naturräumen auf die Gesundheit – Evidenzlage und Konsequenzen für Wissenschaft und Praxis. Bundesgesundheitsblatt, 61, 720-728.
Coensel, B. D., Vanwetswinkel, S., & Botteldooren, D. (2011). Effects of natural sounds on the perception of road traffic noise. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 129(4), EL148–EL153.
De Keijzer, C., Gascon, M., Nieuwenhuijsen, M. J. & Dadvand, P. (2016). Long-Term Green Space Exposure and Cognition Across the Life Course: A Systematic Review. Current environmental health reports, 3(4), 468–477.
Maller, C., Townsend, M., Pryor, A., Brown, P. & St Leger, L. (2006). Healthy nature healthy people: ‘contact with nature’ as an upstream health promotion intervention for populations. Health promotion international, 21(1), 45–54.