“I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in tune once more.”
– John Burroughs
We often think of parks and green space in terms of recreation. More than 80 percent of the U.S. population lives in urban and suburban areas, and we spend an increasing amount of time connected to electronics and detached from nature. We visit parks for fun–a picnic, a playground, or a walk in the woods. But access to nature is also vitally important for another reason: health.
Connecting children and families with nature and its health benefits is a goal of Kyle Yasuda, M.D., FAAP, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and a leader of BestStart Washington, which supports the Project Nature initiative in Washington state.
“Many children have little to no exposure to the natural world and that’s a shame.” said Yasuda. “Research shows children do better physically and emotionally when they’re in green spaces, benefitting from greater physical activity, better mental health, reduced stress and increased resilience.”
In his role with the AAP, Yasuda encourages his pediatric colleagues to “partner with communities to reduce barriers to nature access, particularly for children living in low-income areas.
According to the American Public Health Association (APHA), people of all ages are healthier when they have easy access to natural spaces. Here are a few of the ways your health may improve with regular doses of nature:
- Stronger immune system. People who spend more time in nature experience fewer illnesses thanks to a strong immune system. There is a scientific reason for this: as we breathe in fresh air, we inhale phytoncides, chemicals that plants emit that have antibacterial and antifungal properties. These phytoncides trigger an increase in certain white blood cells called natural killer cells.
- Lower blood pressure. A recent study found that nearly 10% of people with high blood pressure could lower their levels if they spent at least 30 minutes in a park each week, partly because of the heart-related benefits of getting fresh air and lowering stress.
- Lower stress levels. Nature is good for your mental health too! Access to parks and green space is associated with lower levels of stress, anxiety and depression, and in improved attention and focus.
With the nation’s obesity rate at an alarming level–and rising–it’s more important than ever for people to have access to parks and green space. Many studies have found correlations between park proximity and physical activity levels. Natural spaces provide opportunities for people to be active and exercise without requiring an expensive gym membership.
Staying active is particularly important for children, who need at least 60 minutes of activity each day. Children who watch more than 2 hours of TV a day are more likely to be overweight or obese as they get older. Easy access to parks and green space make it easier to get kids outside and moving.
Unfortunately, many neighborhoods do not have parks or green space within walking distance. Cities around the country are working to connect more people with nature, whether by improving access via greenways or by adding and improving parks in underserved areas.
For our part at Project Nature, we have an online locator tool to help families in Washington find nearby parks and green space and an activities database to lookup fun happenings for families in the outdoors. This month we are launching a pilot program to provide kids and families in select pediatric practices with nature play kits. After we assess this initial pilot, we will facilitate extending the nature kits to a greater number of pediatric offices and children in the state in the coming months.