Green spaces and our overall health
With increased urbanisation, more people are living in areas without access to nature. By 2030 over 60% of the world’s population is expected to live in urban areas, which is bound to make access to natural environments even more difficult. These natural environments are described as green spaces found in both the countryside and in urban settings, such as parks, gardens, and in some cases even potted plants.
Research has shown a positive link between health benefits and having access to green spaces. This has led to an increased interest in exploring how greener neighbourhoods are better at promoting wellness, with findings providing evidence that access to natural spaces is an important factor in fighting some of the major threats to public health, such as depression, stress, and coronary diseases.
While studying the relationship between the amount of green space in an individual’s environment and the prevalence of diagnoses of cardiovascular, respiratory and intestinal diseases, along with mental health issues, a Dutch study found that 15 out of the 24 diseases being investigated were reported significantly fewer times in living environments with more green spaces. These findings show that not only can having access to green environments alleviate and help perceived health, but it can also affect specific medical conditions.
To further this claim, in a research paper conducted in Australia, Pereira (2012), found that hospitalisation due to heart disease or stroke was 37% lower in neighbourhoods with more varied green areas, compared to neighbourhoods with fewer such spaces. While the amount of parks and gardens in the neighbourhood was not necessarily associated with lower rates of coronary disease, what was associated with these lower rates was the variety found in such green areas along with accessible, desirable urban destinations.
It is also important to comment on the impact that healthy environments can have on our mental health, as mental health problems are one of the leading causes of disease and disability worldwide. A Scottish Green Health study conducted in socially disadvantaged areas in Scotland found a significant relationship between lack of access to green environments and stress levels, measured by patterns of cortisol (the hormone involved in ‘fight-or-flight’ responses) secretion. They found that areas with more green spaces were linked to lower levels of perceived stress. Similar results were also found in participants in a Japanese study, during which individuals visited both forested and urban areas. Compared with the urban environment, the researchers found that the forests had a positive impact on the participants, resulting in lower blood pressure and lower heart rate. Additionally, it induced higher moods.
Stress can impact well-being over time, as the activation and increase of stress hormones, increases blood pressure, and other physical responses to perceived stress have a long-term impact on health, with an increased risk of heart attacks, strokes, and cardiovascular disorders- the leading cause of death and disability in the world.
While the mechanisms that underlie the connection between health benefits and green spaces still remain unclear, it is theorized that natural environments provide spaces where individuals can be physically active (e.g. they encourage walking, running, cycling), and facilitate social interaction, two important factors that contribute to good mental health.
As the percentage of older adults grows, research has begun to study what kind of environments promote healthy ageing. Nature provides key components for our wellbeing, as green spaces can lead to opportunities for the older generations to enhance their physical and mental wellbeing, also aiding in strengthening social connections.
A study conducted in Vancouver (Canada) found that older adults were motivated to be active and enjoy the fresh air in green spaces that felt familiar and safe. The participants were asked about their day to day contact with green spaces, and how they interacted with them. The answers ranged from topics such as physical therapy to gardening. Many participants associated their time spent outside in green areas as an opportunity to “enjoy life”. Additionally, there is evidence that the benefits of green spaces are even more significant in older individuals, who depend more on their immediate environments and therefore are more in contact with their natural surroundings.
With the current available evidence suggesting a positive relationship between overall health and green spaces, FitQuid wants to motivate its users to hike, visit landmarks, and explore local landscapes, in addition to making the best use of the gardens and parks that are available. FitQuid has set out to find a solution that promotes physical activity and community building by motivating people to utilise green spaces, by setting goals and completing achievements. By gamifying everyday activities we want to reduce sedentary habits, and strive to help people live their healthiest and happiest life.