Can green, open spaces make you healthier?

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Maybe there's good reason why open, unspoiled stretches of land are often referred to as God's country. In South Africa, we are not strangers to being surrounded by lots of green space. 

New research from Britain suggests that getting close to nature is beneficial to your health.

The researchers analysed more than 140 studies that included more than 290 million people in 20 countries to compare the health of those with the greatest access to green space and those with the least access.

'Diverse and significant health benefits'

Green space was defined as undeveloped land with natural vegetation, as well as city locations such as parks and street greenery.

"We found that spending time in, or living close to, natural green spaces is associated with diverse and significant health benefits," said study author Caoimhe Twohig-Bennett. She is with the University of East Anglia's Norwich Medical School.

"It reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, premature death, and preterm birth, and increases sleep duration," Twohig-Bennett said in a university news release.

"People living closer to nature also had reduced diastolic blood pressure, heart rate and stress," she added. "In fact, one of the really interesting things we found is that exposure to green space significantly reduces people's levels of salivary cortisol, a physiological marker of stress."

What is the link?

People with greater access to green space were also more likely to report good overall health, according to the study published in the journal Environmental Research.

"Although we have looked at a large body of research on the relationship between green space and health, we don't know exactly what it is that causes this relationship," Twohig-Bennett said.

And the study did not prove that green space causes health to improve.

"People living near green space likely have more opportunities for physical activity and socialising. Meanwhile, exposure to a diverse variety of bacteria present in natural areas may also have benefits for the immune system and reduce inflammation," Twohig-Bennett suggested.

Study co-author Andy Jones is a professor at the medical school. "We often reach for medication when we're unwell, but exposure to health-promoting environments is increasingly recognised as both preventing and helping treat disease," he said.

"Our study shows that the size of these benefits can be enough to have a meaningful clinical impact," Jones said.

Image credit: iStock

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