We Need Nature for Our Physical and Mental Well-being

Nature is not simply about protecting plants and animals – it’s also good for the soul, and vital for our society’s long-term well-being.

Nature is not simply about protecting plants and animals – it’s also good for the soul, and vital for our society’s long-term well-being.

I was recently watching a documentary on reindeer herders in Siberia. They guided their animals on a long, tough journey through Arctic conditions, spending cold nights outdoors – before eventually arriving at a small town where it turned out they had houses complete with bedrooms, bathrooms, and televisions. The presenter asked why they didn’t just stay in town, and one answered, “To live within four walls would be a prison sentence.”

tiu tang lung

            “Aha!” I thought. “That fits my ideas for a Ming Pao Weekly column on our need to experience nature.” Not because I believe all Hongkongers should start herding animals in harsh environments, but because it echoes my view that we all need nature, and life in an utterly urban environment is like life in a prison for the soul.

            I write this partly based on my own experience: city concerns seem to evaporate when I’m hiking up steep trails, soaking in scenery, trying to photograph butterflies and birds. But there’s also research showing that natural encounters help both our physical and mental well-being. The importance of the latter was emphasised by a recent survey by organisers of the Mental Health Month campaign, who found more than one-third of Hongkongers suffer from mental illness, perhaps because of the stress of city life.

            For this column, I checked online information relating to health and the natural environment. There were of course references to the physical benefits of outdoor exercise like hiking, but I found there’s also evidence that being in nature, or even being amongst and seeing trees, is beneficial in itself. A review of studies assessing health effects of synthetic and natural environments concluded, “Natural environments may have direct and positive impacts on well-being.”

            Earlier this year, Canadian researchers reported that people improve their working memory performance by about 16 percent after walking in nature. And in Scotland, a survey found that anything from a stroll in the park to a run through woodland can have a positive effect on people suffering from depression and anxiety. Plus, the positive effect on people’s mental health was 50 per cent more than they might expect from going to the gym.

            “That makes sense with what we thought we knew,” said study leader Professor Richard Mitchell of Glasgow University. “That is, the brain likes to be in the natural environment and it reacts to being there by turning down our stress response. Being in areas that have lots of trees and grassy areas help to calm us down.”

Country parks are within easy reach

            I know parts of Hong Kong can seem far from anywhere natural. Yet this isn’t really true; it’s easy to reach places like the country parks on Hong Kong Island or just north of Kowloon. So why do Hongkongers pack the city even during leisure time?

            There’s something about modern life – the lure of shopping malls, temptations of technology like online games and “chatting”. But also, to too many people, nature is perhaps a little scary: I’ve heard of Hong Kong kids who were afraid to sit on grass, seen teenagers frightened by butterflies. I asked one friend to go hiking, and she said no because, “It’s dirty.”

            Dirty! Haha, there might be soil under grass and trees – but think a little when you’re in a gleaming mall: as someone coughs and sneezes, you could soon be breathing in their germs. During the SARs outbreak in 2003, many Hong Kong people thought exactly this; malls became way less popular, and crowds of people headed for the hills and coastlines.

            The crowds flocking to country parks discovered what some Hong Kong people already knew: being outdoors here isn’t scary, the city is in an outstanding natural setting, and there’s a lot of things you can do – ranging from gentle walks, through photographing scenery and wildlife, to stream scrambling, kayaking, rock climbing and paragliding.

            One legacy of SARS was surely increased participation in outdoor activities. Yet the city retains its lure, and the high rates of mental illness may partly reflect on brains disliking being continually in the concrete jungle.

            I hope you’re among the people who regularly enjoy heading to the wilder parts of Hong Kong, and spending time in our few urban parks and green areas fringing the city. If not, perhaps try venturing out, see if there’s an activity that appeals and could become a rewarding long-term. You should find people willing to help you; you’ll meet new friends. And don’t just rely on the group visits, that are sometimes rushed – “Seeing flowers on horseback”; take your own time.

            If you go out and enjoy the greener areas, perhaps also become involved in conservation efforts, help persuade planners that we don’t need ever more concrete development. Nature is not simply about protecting plants and animals – it’s also good for the soul, and vital for our society’s long-term well-being.

Version translated to Chinese [see below] appeared in Ming Pao Weekly on 27 October 2012.


  1. 青蔥翠綠大自然 身心健康不可缺






    格拉斯哥大學的Richard Mitchell教授表示:「就我們已知資料而言,調查結果言之成理。大腦喜歡大自然的環境,所以身在大自然時便會自行壓抑本身的壓力反應。在種有大量草木的地方有助我們寧神靜心。」



    髒!草和樹下沒錯都是泥土,但試想一下,在清潔明亮的商場中,當有人咳嗽和打噴嚏時,訪客不是馬上就吸入他們的病菌嗎?在2003年沙士肆虐 期間,很多香港人就是這麼想,所以商場變得不受歡迎,人們轉投青山綠水的懷抱。





    • Trees are good for your health!!!

      From an article in the Atlantic:
      [quote]When the U.S. Forest Service looked at mortality rates in counties affected by the emerald ash borer, they found increased mortality rates. Specifically, more people were dying of cardiovascular and lower respiratory tract illness — the first and third most common causes of death in the U.S. As the infestation took over in each of these places, the connection to poor health strengthened.
      The "relationship between trees and human health," as they put it, is convincingly strong. They controlled for as many other demographic factors as possible. And yet, they are unable to satisfactorily explain why this might be so.

      In a literal sense, of course, the absence of trees would mean the near absence of oxygen — on the most basic level, we cannot survive without them. We know, too, that trees act as a natural filter, cleaning the air from pollutants, with measurable effects in urban areas. The Forest Service put a 3.8 billion dollar value on the air pollution annually removed by urban trees. InWashington D.C., trees remove nitrogen dioxide to an extent equivalent to taking 274,000 cars off the traffic-packed beltway, saving an estimated $51 million in annual pollution-related health care costs.

      But a line of modern thought suggests that trees and other elements of natural environments might affect our health in more nuanced ways as well. Roger Ulrich demonstrated the power of having a connection with nature, however tenous, in his classic 1984 study with patients recovering from gall bladder removal surgery in a suburban Pennsylvania hospital. He manipulated the view from the convalescents' windows so that half were able to gaze at nature while the others saw only a brick wall. Those with trees outside their window recovered faster, and requested fewer pain medications, than those with a "built" view. They even had slightly fewer surgical complications.

      there is something fascinatingly mysterious about the entanglement of our health with that of nature. The suspicion that this may be so, of course, is seen well outside of the scientific literature on the topic. Maurice Sendak knew it, as he spoke of his appreciation for the trees seen from his window in the final months of his life. And Henry David Thoreau, writing in The Atlantic in June 1862, said, "I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least — and it is commonly more than that — sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements."[/quote]
      When Trees Die, People Die

      • research links urban greenery to our wellbeing

        From the European Centre for the Environment and Human Health:
        [quote]Our analyses suggest that people are happier when living in urban areas with greater amounts of green space. Compared to instances when they live in areas with less green space they show significantly lower mental distress (GHQ scores) and significantly higher wellbeing (life satisfaction).

        The analysis also made it possible to compare the beneficial effects of green space with other factors which influence wellbeing. In comparative terms, living in an area with higher levels of green space was associated with improvements in our wellbeing indicators roughly equal to a third of that gained from being married, or a tenth as large as being employed vs. unemployed.

        These effects emerge controlling for other differences at the different time points such as income, employment status, marital status, health, housing type and local area level variables, such as crime rates.

        Urbanisation is considered a potential threat to mental health and wellbeing and although effects at the individual level are small, this study demonstrates that the potential benefit at a population level should be an important consideration in policies aiming to protect and promote urban green spaces for wellbeing.[/quote]


        • look after green spots for safety and health and happiness

          from the University of Queensland:
          [quote]Australians will be happier, safer and healthier if they look after the nature spots in their cities, according to new research led by The University of Queensland.

          The research was led by Dr Richard Fuller from UQ's School of Biological Sciences and the National Environmental Research Program's (NERP) Environmental Decisions Hub, an Australian Government research hub hosted by UQ.

          Dr Fuller said the research showed that having nature nearby can boost people's health, improve their ability to think, and help lower violence and aggression in the community.

          “Conserving nature in cities, such as restoring habitats or setting up reserves can be expensive relative to conservation actions outside cities,” Dr Fuller said.

          “This often raises the question of whether we should invest in keeping biodiversity within our urban areas.

          “The answer is yes, as scientific studies around the world now show that experiences of nature provide important benefits to many aspects of our lives, including our mental and physical health, social relationships and even our spiritual wellbeing.”

          One study that compared the effects of exercising in a green space and an urban environment revealed that stress was reduced after exercise in forest or parks but not in built-up areas. Another study showed that children who participated in gardening or who visited parks had improved self-esteem and mental wellbeing.

          Spending time in nature can also help sick people recover faster, Dr Fuller said.

          “Patients in rooms with a view of trees spend less time in hospitals, require fewer strong painkillers and have fewer postsurgical complications than those whose rooms overlook a brick wall.

          “Nature can also lower death rates. Various studies in the UK and Netherlands show that people living near green spaces have lower disease loads and mortality rates.”

          As well as physical and mental health benefits, the restorative properties of nature can improve a person's ability to tackle mentally challenging tasks, the studies showed.

          “We constantly direct our attention towards avoiding hazards and coping with noise and sights in busy urban environments,” Dr Fuller said.

          “This requires sustained effort and can lead to mental fatigue, resulting in reduced ability to concentrate.

          “A study shows that when asked to repeat a sequence of numbers in reverse order, students who previously walked through a busy city street performed poorly compared to those who had walked through a tree-lined arboretum.”

          Another study that tested people's ability to proofread reveals that those who spent their vacation in the wilderness made few mistakes, whereas the performance of those who spent their holidays elsewhere was poorer.

          The benefits of living close to nature also extend to wider society. In Chicago, violence and aggression were significantly lower in buildings with more surrounding vegetation, Dr Fuller said.

          In addition, having shared green spaces in urban areas encouraged social interaction and fostered empowerment. People who participated in community conservation projects often benefited from the social support they encounter there, he said.

          “While we aren't sure which aspects of nature deliver these benefits – whether it's particular types of garden, trees or animals – there is mounting evidence that having green spaces close to us has a positive impact on our lives,” Dr Fuller said.

          “This is a win-win situation for conservation and society – so we should hold on to our green spaces instead of clearing them for development.”

          Dr Fuller says Australians could plant more trees and shrubs in their backyards to encourage biodiversity.

          “It's important to have lots of vegetation where possible, including denser thickets, tall trees, low-growing shrubs and scraggly grass where birds and insects abound,” he said.

          “In the meantime, spend more time outdoors, especially with your children. A nationwide survey in US shows that growing up in natural environments has a strong influence on positive environmental attitudes in adult life, and they are more likely to appreciate and support conservation in adulthood.”

          The review, What are the benefits of interacting with nature? by Lucy E. Keniger, Kevin J. Gaston, Katherine N. Irvine and Richard A. Fuller is published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. The paper is freely downloadable from: http://www.mdpi.com/1660-4601/10/3/913/pdf

          The Australian Government funds the National Environmental Research Program (NERP) to inform evidence-based policy and sustainable management of the Australian environment.[/quote]
          Green Cities Mean Healthier People

          • Removing trees can kill you

            From PBS:
            [quote]The trees died first. One hundred million of them in the eastern and midwestern United States. The culprit: the emerald ash borer, a beetle that entered the U.S. through Detroit in 2002 and quickly spread to Iowa, New York, Virginia and nearly every state between. The bug attacks all 22 species of North American ash and kills nearly every tree it infests.

            Then came the humans. In the 15 states infected with the bug starting, an additional 15,000 people died from cardiovascular disease and 6,000 more from lower respiratory disease compared with uninfected areas of the country.

            A team of researchers with the U.S. Forest Services looked at data from 1,296 counties, accounted for the influence of other variables — things like income, race, and education — and came to a simple conclusion: Having fewer trees around may be bad for your health.[/quote]
            How Removing Trees Can Kill You

          • Creativity and health linked to contact with nature

            From Nat Geographic interview with Richard Louv:

            If you look at a new body of research on depression, ADD, physical health, child obesity, and the epidemic of inactivity, nature is a good antidote to all of that. I didn't coin it, but I like the phrase "sitting is the new smoking," because new evidence shows that sitting long hours every day can have serious health risks similar to those caused by smoking.

            Researchers at the University of Illinois are investigating whether time in the woods could be used to supplement treatment of ADD. A study at the University of Kansas found that young people who backpacked for three days showed higher creativity and cognitive abilities. People in hospitals who can see a natural landscape have been shown to get better faster.

            As an antidote, we need to figure out ways to increase nature time even as technology increases. It has to be a conscious decision.[/quote]

            Connecting With Nature Boosts Creativity and Health

            Richard Louv explains how society can overcome nature-deficit disorder


    • More green space and lower housing density healthier

      [quote]could it be that the look and the layout of our cities is actually bad for our health?

      A new report from the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) sets out to prove just that. Comparing rates of physical activity, childhood obesity and diabetes in England’s nine most populous cities, RIBA have found a clear correlation between the amount of green space, density of housing in urban areas, and the overall health of the local population. 

      estimates suggest that the risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes could be cut by 50 per cent if people were to meet physical activity targets
      Architects and urban designers could play a key role in “ mitigating the impact of a lack of green space and creating environments to support walking,” the report states.

      Their practical recommendations include the creation of attractive, safe walking routes between green spaces, to encourage people to travel around the city by foot. Parks and recreations grounds themselves can be made more attractive as places to walk, run and play through simple measures such as improving walkways, letting in light by lowering any high walls or heavy vegetation and installing more bins and benches.[/quote]
      How town planning can make us thin and healthy: Architects show that more green space and less housing density has a clear effect on public health

    • Work smarter by spending time in nature

      [quote]3. Spend time in nature. Daniel Goleman, author of Focus: The Hidden Power of Excellence, suggests spending time in nature to help us reset our attention span and relax our minds.

      One experiment he mentions tested how relaxed people were when taking a walk down a city street versus in a quiet park. The study found that the level of attention needed to navigate a busy city street is high enough that the walk doesn’t let the brain relax enough to reset our focus levels:

      Unlike natural environments, urban environments are filled with stimulation that captures attention dramatically and additionally requires directed attention (e.g., to avoid being hit by a car), making them less restorative.

      Spending time in nature, however, allows your mind to fully relax and unwind and helps you focus longer when you return to work. Plus, other research has found that for students, motivation to learn is higher when they are outside instead of in a classroom.[/quote]

      5 Scientifically Proven Ways to Work Smarter, Not Harder


  2. Gardening makes you happier

    from realfarmacy website:
    [quote]here are two interesting pieces of research that give credence to the feeling that our bodies and souls are better off from gardening.
    Researchers reported in the journal Neuroscience that contact with a soil bacteria called Mycobacterium vaccae triggers the release of serotonin in the brain. This type of serotonin acts on several different pathways including mood and learning. Lack of serotonin in the brains is related to depression.

    it turns out that harvesting fruits and vegetables triggers the release of dopamine in the brain. It is speculated that this evolved over 200,000 years of humans harvesting food as hunter-gatherers. Dopamine is strongly correlated with reward-motivated behavior.[/quote]
    Read more at http://www.realfarmacy.com/science-shows-gardening-makes-you-happier-and-smarter/#2RWHx9H9TYOPXU4E.99

  3. Green spaces in UK hugely boost public health

    Outdoor exercise delivers an estimated £2.2bn of health benefits to adults in England each year, a study suggests.
    Scientists calculated that more than eight million people each week took at least 30 minutes of “green exercise”.
    They hope the results highlight how encouraging more people to use parks will help reverse the trend of rising obesity levels across the UK.


  4. Attachment to nature key to environmental concern

    Research indicates that motivating people to care takes more than just reciting facts and making doomsday predictions. Instead, it requires promoting compassionate concern for our natural world, which comes from early contact with nature, empathy for our fellow creatures, and a sense of wonder and fascination.

    Specifically, scientists are starting to uncover how to encourage that compassionate concern in children, so that it will translate into pro-environmental behavior down the road


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *