a lone hiker on the trail at La Honda Creek

Even surrounded by the beauty the Bay Area offers, it’s sometimes easy to take nature for granted. We can be tied to our screens at work, surrounded by concrete at home, busy raising kids or working an extra job (or both!).

A growing body of research shows being in nature has real, quantifiable health benefits.

The Bay Area's own Center for Nature and Health sums it up: "The facts are clear. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the impact of chronic health conditions such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes is staggering. Mental health illnesses such as pediatric depression, anxiety, loneliness and feelings of isolation, all of which are related to poor health outcomes, are at an all-time high. Many of these conditions are preventable. All are costly. The incidence of chronic disease is higher among low-income children, children of color, and those with disabilities. Yet due to the high costs of care and uneven access, as a society we are experiencing a broad equity gap related to health outcomes. Exposure to nature is a low-cost, readily available resource for combating many of the conditions which contribute to chronic illness health inequity and high healthcare costs. However, there is a gap in evidence guiding the implementation of integrating nature into clinical and public health practice."

Richard Louv, who coined the term Nature Deficit Disorder in his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods, says the results of nearly 1,000 studies “point in one direction: Nature is not only nice to have, but it’s a have-to-have for physical health and cognitive functioning.”

Louv cofounded the Children and Nature Network, where making an evidence-based case for nature connection is part of the mission. The group’s recent infographic illustrates how studies show that spending time in nature provides children with a wide range of health benefits and offers these takeaways: Even before birth, nature exposure for mothers can promote better fetal growth and healthier birthrates, especially for mothers of lower education and socio-economic levels. Time spent outdoors in bright sunlight can reduce nearsightedness and increase vitamin D levels and access to parks and greenspace can foster increased physical activity, reduced risk of obesity and the likelihood that girls will remain active into adolescence. Learning in nature can support improved relationship skills, as well as reduced stress, anger and aggression.

A UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability report on California State Parks: A Valuable Resource for Youth Health summarizes the health benefits of time spent outdoors for youth, including: living near a park has substantial health benefits, time spent in parks has a positive impact on mental health, long-term exposure to green space can moderate symptoms of attention disorders, park use substantially reduces stress and can increase resiliency, and that park programs are cost-effective investments.

For adults, a scientific report on Nature.com summarizes evidence that living in greener urban areas is associated with lower probabilities of cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, asthma hospitalization, mental distress, and ultimately mortality.

The American Public Health Association's policy statement on Improving Health and Wellness through Acess to Nature states: "Access to nature has been related to lower levels of mortality and illness, higher levels of outdoor physical activity, restoration from stress, a greater sense of well-being, and greater social capital." And further acknowledges that: "People evolved in natural environments, but urbanization, the industrialization of agriculture, and a shift to sedentary indoor lifestyles have distanced many people from nature, depriving them of the positive health benefits associated with natural light, green views, local biodiversity, natural landscapes, and gardens and parks near their homes, schools, and workplaces. Low-income and ethnic communities are most likely to lack these resources. A rapidly growing body of evidence establishes that protecting and restoring access to nature in different spheres of people’s lives, among those of all ages, social groups, and abilities, can alleviate some of the most important problems in public health, including obesity, stress, social isolation, injury, and violence."

In 2010, the National Recreation and Parks Association published an overview of scientific research to date on the relationship between nature and human health, concluding: “Yes, the benefits of nature that have been intuited and written about through the ages have withstood rigorous scientific scrutiny. Yes, we still find these benefits when we measure them objectively; yes, we still find these benefits when non-nature lovers are included in our studies; and yes, we still find these benefits even when income and other factors that could explain a nature-health link are taken into account. In the face of the tremendously diverse and rigorous tests to which the nature-human health hypothesis has been subjected, the strength, consistency, and convergence of the findings are remarkable.”

The University of Minnesota’s Earl E. Bakken Center for Spiritually & Healing offers these findings on how nature impacts our well-being.

A cost-benefit study in Lincoln, Nebraska found that for every $1 invested in trails for physical activity led to nearly $3 in direct medical benefits.

 The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation lists numerous references that extoll the benefits of spending time outside and in forests makes us healthier by:

  • boosting the immune system
  • lowering blood pressure
  • reducing stress
  • improving mood
  • increasing ability to focus, even in children with ADHD
  • accelerating recovery from surgery or illness
  • increasing energy level
  • improving sleep

Similarly, the American Society of Landscape Architects lists dozens of free research studies, news articles and  on the health benefits of nature on its website, categorizing them by health topics for adults and children.

A study by Georgetown University Medical Center found a surprising way sunlight benefits immunity (aside from Vitamin D).

In Britain, this longitudinal study showed people who moved to greener areas had significantly better mental health scores that were sustained. And another found that increased exposure to nature translated to community cohesion and substantially lower crime rates.

In fact, so much evidence exists linking time spent in nature to improved health outcomes, researchers are beginning to turn their attention to understanding how nature makes us healthier.

Others, like Gretchen Daily at Stanford University’s Natural Capital Project, are suggesting the mental health benefits of nature should be factored into economic models and that ecosystems are a capital asset.

Being in nature truly is an essential activity and Midpen is grateful our work to preserve, protect and restore nature can benefit the entire Bay Area by connecting people to these special places.