Connections Between Nature and Human Health

Overview

Person in Hoh Rainforest Admiring the TreesDoes spending time in nature produce benefits to human health? The question has intrigued researchers and scientists for decades or more.

While cause and effect is hard to prove, a large body of scientific research finds a positive correlation between nature experiences and general well-being. Some of the wide set of health measures that large published, peer-reviewed studies have associated with time spent in nature or nature viewing include:

  • -Reduced stress
  • -Less depression
  • -Better weight control
  • -Less impulsivity in decision making
  • -Improved mental focus
  • -Improved immune system function

What could account for such findings? Why might human beings respond positively to time spent in nature? In 1984 biologist and author E.O. Wilson offered one theory: He introduced the term biophilia – literally, love of nature – to convey the hypothesis that humans are hard-wired by evolution to feel an emotional pull to other living organisms – plant or animal.

Growing interest in positive health-and-nature connections has led to the emergence of a new field of therapy, called nature therapy – or ecopsychology. Ecopsychology practitioners can be found in more than 20 countries in Europe, Asia, Central and South America and more than 30 states in the United States.

Also in the United States, some physicians like Robert Zarr, a pediatrician with Unity Health Care, serving more than 100,000 patients in Washington, DC, write “nature prescriptions” for their patients. Zarr is the founder and director of DC Park Prescriptions, which he calls “a program we have integrated into our practice to prevent and treat chronic disease by actually prescribing parks. It is a scientifically proven fact that being active outside near a body of water is good for your health and promotes well-being.”

 

Watch the Human Dimensions of Natural Resources Conservation Broadcast:

Aired August 4, 2016
 
You’ll learn more about the science behind nature's impact on human health and well-being, and about how the Service is working with health professionals to get communities healthier and more connected to nature. Hear from an exciting line-up of presenters: Dr. Ming Kuo, Director of the Landscape and Human Health Laboratory at University of Illinois; Georgia Jeppesen, Team Lead of the USFWS Career Awareness Branch; and Robin Will, supervisory Refuge Ranger at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. 
 
Resources and links related to the broadcast:

Management Questions

Soul River, OR photo by USFWSWhat are the elements of an urban ecosystem that relate directly to human health?

Use this tool to explore how the pieces within an urban ecosystem interact with the whole, as well as the influence the pieces have on human health. Eco-Health Relationship Browser: Public Health Linkages to Ecosystem Services.

How are other land managers promoting access to nature for overall human well-being?

National Wildlife Refuge System: To Feel Healthier, Happier - Try Nature cites research supporting links between health and nature. There are highlights linking to different programs supporting consistent access to nature at both parks in urban settings, and wildlife refuges in Florida, Oregon, Maryland, and California. See also this blog post highlighting many of the same concepts and findings.

Examples of Studies or Initiatives

Since the 1980s, research in the field has proliferated. Numerous studies have linked being in nature or viewing nature to overall well-being in humans, and a lack of nature exposure to decreased mental and physical wellness. Here is a sampling of the research. Additionally, many initiatives have been put in action based in part on these studies. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it suggests the breadth of the field. 

Examples of Studies

Nature Contact and Human Health: A Research Agenda Environmental Health Perspectives, 2017.

In a time of increasing disconnection from nature, research on and interest in the connections between nature and human health has only grown. This paper proposes a research agenda for exploring the the effect of nature contact on health, formulating a foundation for evidence-based public health interventions. The authors discuss seven primary domains where further research is needed and emphasize the importance of addressing unanswered questions.

Making Time for Nature: Visual Exposure to Natural Environments Lengthens Subjective Time Perception and Reduces Impulsivity Public Library of Science (PLOS). 2015.

This study of 45 undergraduate students found that participants who were shown photos of natural environments exhibited less impulsivity in decision-making and perceived that more time had passed than those who were shown photos of built environments.

Nature Experience Reduces Rumination and Subgenual Prefrontal Cortex Activation Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS). 2015.

The study found that a 90-minute walk in a nature setting decreased self-reported rumination, a negative thought pattern, and neural activity in a part of the brain called the subgenual prefrontal cortex, while a 90-minute walk in an urban setting had no such effects.

The Great Outdoors? Exploring the Mental Health Benefits of Natural Environments Frontiers in Psychology. 2014.

The article cites several studies supporting the association between exposure to the natural environment and decreased stress, decreased symptoms of depression, and improved cognition in children. The article also reviews evidence from studies that have found higher restorative effects on people from the natural environment than from built or urban environments.

Special Issue "Health Benefits of Nature" International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2014.

The special edition of the journal compiles research highlighting the links between human well-being and nature, and the strategies that could be used to address problems linked to deprivation of nature. Included in the special edition are case studies, policy analysis, analytical reviews, and research papers.

Last Child in the Woods Richard Louv. 2013.

This celebrated book by a child advocacy expert draws on copious research and anecdotal evidence to make the case that children’s growing distance from nature makes them more susceptible to ills such as stress, depression, attention disorders, and obesity. The book helped inspire the Leave No Child Inside movement.

Health Benefits of Nature Experience: Psychological, Social and Cultural Processes Forests, Trees and Human Health. 2010.

The study considers the effect nature experiences have on human health and overall well-being by looking at how human interaction with nature has changed from ancient times to the present.

Biophilia: Does Visual Contact with Nature Impact on Health and Well-Being? International Journal of Resources for Environmental Health. 2009.

The paper reviews the research literature linking visual contact with nature to such human health benefits as reduced stress, improved attention, mental restoration, and reduced attention deficits, and linking decreased nature contact with health problems such as obesity, attention disorder, and depression.

Promoting Ecosystem and Human Health in Urban Areas Using Green Infrastructure: A Literature Review Landscape and Urban Planning. 2007.

The paper reviews the research linking access to green space in urban areas with self-reported health benefits, including stress reduction. It concludes that green infrastructure may have considerable potential for improving the health of urban residents.

Nature Nearby: A Buffer of Life Stress Among Rural Children Environment & Behavior. 2003.

The study of 337 rural children in Grades 3-5 found that those with vegetation or green spaces near their homes were less stressed than children with less contact to such places.  The study concludes that nature can be a buffer against life’s stress for children.

Beyond Toxicity: Human Health and the Natural Environment American Journal of Preventive Medicine. 2001.

The article explores the hypothesis that certain types of environmental contact may have a positive effect on human health, based on the theory that humans are fundamentally attracted to other living organisms. The paper reviews evidence for the biophilia hypothesis from four aspects of the natural world: animals, plants, landscapes and wilderness.

The Restorative Benefits of Nature: Toward an Integrative Framework Journal of Environmental Psychology. 1995.

Attention Restoration Theory holds that nature can help renew people’s directed attention and counteract information processing fatigue. The article proposes an integrative framework to place both directed attention and stress in the larger context of human-and-nature relationships.

View Through a Window May Influence Recovery from Surgery Science. 1984.

This study of gallbladder surgery patients at a Pennsylvania hospital between 1972 and 1981 showed that those patients whose hospital rooms overlooked a natural green space recovered faster and needed less pain medication than patients whose rooms overlooked a brick wall.

Examples of Initiatives

Let's Move Michelle Obama.

Created to fight childhood obesity, this national initiative aims to get children and families on a path to a healthier future. One of the initiative’s five key areas is increasing physical activity in families, schools and communities. Another – Let’s Move Outside – promotes healthy outdoor activity. The initiative encourages community leaders to create more safe routes for walking and biking to school, revitalize parks and playgrounds, and provide engaging and affordable sports and fitness programs.

Nature Rocks ecoAmerica 

Nature Rocks is a program to inspire and empower parents to reconnect with nature for happier, healthier and smarter children. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is a partner in this national effort to get kids into nature.

Healthy Parks Healthy People National Park Service.

Healthy Parks Healthy People is a movement that harnesses the power of parks and public lands to promote the health of people and the environment. Created by the National Park Service, the initiative fosters the idea that parks and wildlands are cornerstones of people’s mental, physical, and spiritual health, and social well-being and sustainability of the planet.

Children & Nature Network

The goal of the movement is to invest in local leaders to support and create a future whwere all children can learn and play with nature everyday. Over 40 regional campaigns in the United States are actively working to connect communities and children to nature through innovative ideas, collaborative leadership, and evidence-based resources and tools. The movement is gaining an audience in foreign countries as well. History of how the movement started can be viewed here

Positive Health Effects of the Natural Outdoor Environment in Typical Populations in Different Regions in Europe (PHENOTYPE): A Study Programme Protocol BMJ Open. 2014.

The study will investigate connections between well-being and natural outdoor environments, and explore proposed mechanisms that may account for them. Those mechanisms include stress reduction, physical activity, social interaction, and reduced exposure to environmental hazards.

 

Urban Wildlife Conservation Program

This U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service initiative aims to engage urban residents in discovering, appreciating and caring for nature in their cities and beyond. The program includes 17 urban wildlife refuge partnerships across the United States. Several of these partnerships include a focus on human health.

 

Related Partners

Most people know that the National Park Service cares for national parks, a network of nearly 400 natural, cultural and recreational sites across the nation. The treasures in this system -- the first of its kind in the world -- have been set aside by the American people to preserve, protect, and share, the legacies of this land.
The Fish and Wildlife Service works with others to manage and monitor the conservation of wildlife habitats throughout the United States. This includes the direct management of the National Wildlife Refuge System for the wellfare of all American people, and using social science in the decision making process and utilization of management plans.