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Green spaces - nature making us healthier

Green Spaces: Nature Making Us Healthier

Al Waller: You would have to dig pretty deep to locate much in the way of positives produced by the COVD-19 pandemic. For many people, the COVID-19 pandemic brought a new appreciation of nature and what it means for our well-being. It is also no surprise that the environments that we spend the most time in play a significant role in our health. In particular, access to green spaces is strongly linked to a healthier aging process.

Welcome back to ClearPath – Your Roadmap to Health & WealthSM. I’m your host, Al Waller. With us today is Mihaela Vincze, public health expert for nonprofit Transamerica Institute®, and she is here to discuss how exposure to green space is important for our health, especially as we get older. She will also discuss how much time we should spend in green spaces, and how doing so can safeguard our health.

Before we get started, I would like to remind you that if you have any topic ideas you’d like to hear about, please reach out to us at [email protected]. We’d love to hear from you!

It’s a pleasure to have you back, Mihaela.

Why don't we start with some fundamentals in terms of…well, what exactly constitutes a green space?

Mihaela Vincze: Good question. Green spaces encompass anything that allows us to tap into nature—think landscaping, walking through the woods, enjoying yourself in a park. Access to these spaces is important because it can have a restorative effect. For instance, the Japanese practice of “forest bathing” or taking in the forest through our senses when we feel overwhelmed, shows just how powerful nature can be on our well-being.

Al Waller: I'd have to agree with you there. Nature really can provide a sense of peace in this hectic world that's often filled with – well, way too much drama! So then, could you explain exactly how green spaces benefit our health?

Mihaela Vincze: Green spaces may reduce exposure to harmful factors such as air pollution, noise, and heat. These are beneficial to all populations, but older people may be especially vulnerable to these elements. Access to green spaces in a neighborhood may also encourage people to be more active – just think about pretty trees outside and flowers. They’ll be more encouraged to go outside and spend some time in that space vs being in a city. You won’t have that same inkling to go out.

Green space may also provide a break from over-stimulation—this can also be beneficial for our mental health. Access to these spaces can also reduce emotions like anger and fear and can increase a positive mood.

Al Waller: Well, that is certainly encouraging – and speaking of mental health—how does green space go about improving it?

Mihaela Vincze: Green spaces can have a protective effect on our mental well-being. A study published in Environment and Behavior found that exposure to nature is correlated with greater life satisfaction. More specifically, green space can reduce stress and incidences of mental health conditions, like depression and anxiety. This is because green scenery is likely to activate our parasympathetic nervous system — the system that allows us to calm down and recover from stressful events.

Al Waller: That’s fascinating and may also explain why golf, beyond the sport itself, is so popular – providing you are having a decent round! Are there any other ways green spaces benefit us?

Mihaela Vincze: Yes, there are a few other ways. A study published in Health & Peace found that the passive enjoyment of green spaces — for instance, being able to see trees in our backyard— can help reduce the frequency and intensity of cravings for unhealthy foods/snacks, tobacco, or alcohol. For those who are struggling with cravings, perhaps exposure to green scenery – just by having it in your vicinity – can help break those habits.

Al Waller: The power of greenery you are describing is astonishing. It does makes me wonder – just how much time do people need to spend in nature to reap these “well-being” benefits?

Mihaela Vincze: That is something I also wondered about. A study published in Scientific Reports found that people who spent at least two hours in nature per week were consistently more likely to report higher levels of health and well-being compared to people who spent less time in nature.

Al Waller: Here's another thing. It's funny, as we've been talking, I can't help but wonder is it possible that people who have access to green spaces – say, those who live by hiking trails or nice parks and obviously, may tend to have a greater income, increasing their likelihood of greater access to good health care and education – might just provide a greater likelihood for a positive impact on their health?

Mihaela Vincze: That is a valid point to think about. However, a study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health showed that the impact of green spaces is strongest among those of lower socioeconomic status than those who are affluent. These results suggest green space might be a tool to advance health equity.

Al Waller: Well, that's an important observation that I hadn't considered in terms of how green spaces impact various populations, as well as demographics. Now, do green spaces provide any discernible benefits for our older population?

Mihaela Vincze: Yes, the health benefits of green spaces are more apparent in older populations, as they generally spend more time indoors in their residence than younger populations, especially if they have limited mobility.

According to a study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, older people living in neighborhoods with more green spaces showed lower risk of conditions like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and hypertension.

Al Waller: Well, that's very affirming to know that green spaces just have so much to offer. Would I be correct in assuming that green spaces benefit the brains of those who are older?

Mihaela Vincze: Yes! Older adults showed slower cognitive decline when they lived in greener neighborhoods, according to a study published in Environmental Health Perspectives. That is not all, older adults also reported less stress, greater life satisfaction, and better general health according to another study published in the Environment and Planning. These are all factors that can boost our brain health.

Al Waller: I have got to tell you – this has been just such a positive conversation we're having here today. Nature seems to provide so many impactful and long-term benefits. Now, how should someone go about incorporating green spaces into their daily lives?

Mihaela Vincze: If possible, take a daily walk. This is an easy way to experience nature, even if it means just looking at a few trees alongside the road or walking by a neighbor’s front yard.

Another thing I encourage you to start doing is make outdoor weekend plans. Simple weekend options could include going to a playground, a park, or on a hike. These are all free options if you are not able to get out in your own neighborhood during the week.

Lastly, something else that might be interesting to try out is sprinkling in plants into your living space. Bringing bits of the outdoors into your “indoor life” is a great way to stay connected to all the beautiful things nature provides. Indoor herb gardens are also fun ways to have more “green” around.

Al Waller: Well, I know I did a wildflower patch, and I’ve got to tell you – that gives me lots of enjoyment every time I'm looking out of my kitchen window. These are great suggestions all around, Mihaela, and thanks so much for joining us today.

If you’d like to check out any of the source materials mentioned today, visit transamericainstitute.org/podcast to review the episode’s transcript.

If you have comments, feedback, or topic ideas, please reach out to [email protected]. Don’t forget to hit that subscribe button so that you don’t miss an episode of ClearPath—Your Roadmap to Health & Wealth.

ClearPath – Your Roadmap to Health & Wealth is brought to you by Transamerica Institute, a nonprofit private foundation dedicated to identifying, researching, and educating the public about health and wellness, employment, financial literacy, longevity, and retirement. You can find our weekly podcast on WYPR’s website and mobile app, wherever you get your podcasts, and at transamericainstitute.org/podcast.

ClearPath – Your Roadmap to Health & Wealth is produced by the Transamerica Institute with assistance from WYPR.

Until the next time, I’m your host Al Waller. Stay safe, be well and thanks for listening.

The information provided here is for educational purposes only and should not be construed as insurance, securities, ERISA, tax, investment, legal, medical, or financial advice or guidance.

Al Waller is a long-time Baltimore native and employment expert with a 30-year career in leading and advising locally and globally based corporations on matters including: Talent Acquisition and Retention, Employee Relations, Training and Development.
Mihaela Vincze is a public health expert and experienced health care educator. Serving as Transamerica Institute’s health care content developer, she shares insights on health and wellness on ClearPath—Your Roadmap to Health and WealthSM. Mihaela earned her master’s and bachelor’s degrees in public health at California State University, Northridge.