Our society is increasingly suffering a disconnect between society and nature.
The extent that these two paths are diverging could one day be considered to be one of the hallmarks of early 21st century life; a transition exemplified by our decreasing references to nature in books and songs, an increase in sedentary lifestyles, and a steady decrease in outdoor play and activities.
Meanwhile, across our cities, our daily contact with nature continues to diminish as a result of rapid urbanisation, resource exploitation, and a growing desire for convenience over experience.
These changes do not come without a human cost, with recent studies pointing to a series of related negative effects on mental health, environmental awareness and social connection.
A green prescription is in order to improve both our levels of activity and wellbeing.
The UK’s city dwellers can be commonly characterised as spending much of their time deskbound while yearning to be more active. Many harbour and express a deep love for getting out, stretching their legs and exploring their local area, but admit that the frustrations of life interfere, and how hard it is to uncover new places to take short and long local walks, find hidden trails in familiar haunts, find new adventures away from home or discover nature on their doorstep.
The reasons for getting out of the car are myriad. The school run alone is responsible for two million tonnes of CO2 pollution each year, and residents save up to £950 million per year in health costs due to public parks and green spaces, which provide opportunities for people to exercise, socialise, relax and enjoy being part of their community, according to the Natural Capital Account for London.
Walking is one of the easiest ways to be active and research shows it can help to save lives as a preventative measure, providing protection from some cancers, obesity, heart disease and dementia. It also provides a key active opportunity for people to connect with nature, with an array of benefits that include improved air quality and social cohesion. Yet not enough is being done to attract new audiences to this life-affirming pastime.
In 2017, our team partnered with the Nature Connectedness Research Group at the University of Derby to create a research app platform that would help measure the impact of noticing nature on mental health. Led by Professor Miles Richardson and involving colleagues from the University of Sheffield, they examined the responses of more than 800 residents of Sheffield, including 150 people with a mental health condition. The research app, which prompted users to record ‘good things’ in nature in urban areas, found that the smartphone app can bring clinically significant improvements in mental health.
The study discusses how nature is being under utilised by the public health system, and how more investment in preventative nature-based solutions could result in positive outcomes for patients. The findings show a clinically significant and positive effect on wellbeing not just at the end of the seven-day period, but also one month later when a follow-up assessment was carried out.
According to Professor Richardson, “noticing simple things in nature, such as trees, skies, flowers, birds and wildlife, can have a beneficial impact. The findings also provide evidence that exposure to nature in childhood is important to help adults achieve a sense of wellbeing by renewing and reigniting that connection.” This study shows promise that a smartphone-based ‘green prescription’ to connect with nature in urban areas could play a role in delivering mental health and wellbeing and aiding recovery. Something my company, Go Jauntly, will be actively working on in 2020.
Our data, collected in partnership with Transport for London and Talk London, shows that walking makes people feel calm and happy and can help improve their mood. Trees and views are their favourite aspects of a walk and often a short walk is as good as a long walk. Londoners who spend time in green spaces are also more likely to consider themselves ‘very happy’ whilst Millennials and Gen Y are the least happy group and need the most motivation to get outdoors. Interestingly, this green prescription worked best for those with low levels of nature connection and who spent less time outdoors, the research app study found.
Neuroscientist, Shane O’Mara believes GPs should prescribe walking instead of pills. “Patients should be told to go out and do 5,000 steps a day,” he says. Walking isn’t just good for our hearts, lungs, gut and general fitness,” he says, “it’s essential for healthy brain function too and can help people be more creative.”
Despite what the trillion dollar wellness industry will have you believe, wellbeing or being happier and healthier doesn’t have to be complicated, complex or costly. Many studies suggest that walking (or cycling) either on the way to work or walking daily combined has the potential to bring nationwide improvements to health and wellbeing let alone reducing carbon emissions and air pollution. If we combine this with nature connection, could the benefits deliver a double or triple-whammy?
At this point, it’s important to note you don’t need a wild forest or woodland to walk in to connect with nature (e.g. the Japanese art of forest-bathing, shinrin-yoku), somewhere local, green, along quiet roads or in urban areas or even the local High Street, will also provide significant benefits. You don’t need special clothes or gear to walk. A walk from right outside your door plus any comfortable shoe will get you from A to B. Go on, take a step out, walk more, stop and notice nature and feel happier and healthier for it!
Go Jauntly is a community-based walking app, where people can find local walks created by the people who love and know them, create their own routes and share them with their friends, family and the app’s growing community. In the near future, community members will also be able to track and monitor their levels of nature connection and walking activities.