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A new study finds that going for a walk in a park or along a lake or tree-lined space may reduce the need for medications for anxiety, asthma, depression, high blood pressure or insomnia.
“Physical activity is believed to be the main mediating factor in the health benefits of green spaces when considering the availability or active use of green spaces,” the study said. Co-author Anu Turunen, senior researcher at the Finnish Institute for Health and Wellbeing in Helsinki, in an email.
The study found that visiting nature three to four times a week was associated with 36% less odds of using blood pressure pills, 33% less odds of using mental health medication, and 26% less odds of using asthma medication.
“The analysis can reveal key associations, but we can’t say for sure whether it was the proximity or use of green space that led to reduced drug use,” said Lincoln Larson, associate professor at North Carolina State College of Natural Resources. University of Raleigh, who was not involved in the study.
“Perhaps people who were healthier to begin with (and less likely to take prescription medications) were more likely to get outdoors in the first place,” Larson said via email.
The study, published Monday, January 16, in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, interviewed nearly 6,000 random people in three of Finland’s largest cities about their use of green and blue spaces within one kilometer of their homes.
Green spaces included forests, gardens, parks, cemeteries, swamps, natural pastures, wetlands, and zoos. Blue areas included lakes, rivers and the sea.
Previous studies have found that people who live near green spaces reap significant health benefits. A 2016 study compared the amount of plant life and vegetation near the homes of nearly 100,000 women. Eight years later, researchers found that access to more green space reduced women’s mortality by 12% – and improved their mental health.
A 2019 study of green spaces around the world found that people who live close to them are less likely to die prematurely. Even doctors are beginning to prescribe nature as a mental health remedy, CNN chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta found out on an episode of the podcast series, Chasing Life.
The new study also looked at the effect of being able to see green or blue spaces from home on medication use. Indoors nature observation doesn’t seem to work.
“Just seeing nature didn’t really move the needle, but experiencing it did. Other research points to similar conclusions,” said Larson, who has studied the benefits of public parks across the United States on the well-being of urban dwellers.
“If you want to reap the full health benefits that nature can provide, you have to indulge in those places,” he said.
While the research has not yet been able to show a true association, Larson still believes in the benefits of vision, as well as nature testing.
“If you can’t get to those places, just seeing green spaces (or maybe experiencing virtual nature) is better than nothing,” he added.
You can even put a plant on your desk. A 2019 study found that caring for plants in the workplace slightly reduced stress for Japanese workers—unless their plant died. Objectively measured, 27% of workers showed a significant decrease in resting heart rate, according to the study.