We know that connecting with nature is good for our health, thanks to a growing body of evidence on the health benefits of nature contact. But how do we measure a dose of nature? Do we get the same benefits from having plants in our offices as we do gardening in our yards? Is looking at a picture of the ocean on our computers or via virtual reality the same as seeing it in person?
Scientists say a robust research effort, focused on key unanswered questions like these, has the potential to yield high-impact public health insights.
“As we show particular forms of nature contact to be effective, we’ll have treatments that are inexpensive, safe, widely available and useful for a wide range of conditions, and that don’t need to be administered by highly trained professionals,” says Dr. Howard Frumkin, a professor of environmental and occupational health sciences, at the University of Washington School of Public Health. “If we only had medicines that could boast these attributes.”
[Photo: Dr. Howard Frumkin]
A team of scientists led by Dr. Frumkin identified seven research domains that, together, frame an agenda for studying the health benefits of nature contact. The agenda was published online in Environmental Health Perspectives.
“The idea that nature contact can promote good health is very intuitive,” Dr. Frumkin says. As with many intuitive ideas, he adds, we need solid evidence that only rigorous research can provide.
The multidisciplinary team assembled at Washington to study published reviews and primary research on the nature-health connection. They noted gaps in research and unanswered questions, and discussed a range of research priorities.
Among the research topics of top priority are those that focus on the most common exposures and outcomes, according to the scientists.
As nearly four in five Americans and more than half of the global population live in cities, understanding urban greenspaces is important. More specifically, how often people use greenspaces, whether they are easily accessible, and in what ways they promote physical activity and social interaction.
Scientists also emphasized studying the links between nature and health outcomes of public health importance, such as obesity, cardiovascular disease, cancer, depression and anxiety. Research should also focus on populations at particular risk, such as children, the elderly and disadvantaged groups.
Scientists warn that challenges exist. For one, exposure measurements often fail to capture variation in how people experience nature. In addition, it is hard to quantify what a person experiences during an episode of nature contact, also referred to as the “dose.”
“At a time when health care costs are skyrocketing, our population is aging, the opioid epidemic has reached alarming proportions, and mortality is rising for some groups, innovative approaches to prevention and treatment are much needed,” Dr. Frumkin says. “Nature contact may well be one such approach.”
The team included experts from the Washington’s Center for Creative Conservation, department of psychology, department of pediatrics, department of chemistry and College of the Environment (schools of Environmental and Forest Sciences and of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences); as well as The Nature Conservancy, Seattle Children’s, USDA Forest Service, Willamette Partnership and Stanford University’s Center for Conservation Biology and The Natural Capital Project.