The green space that heals you naturally

Why going green can be so healthy for you

  • This troubling development policy is a major health issue
  • Why we’re suddenly being prescribed green space
  • The best preventative medicine you can take – and it will cost you nothing

When I was a kid, I used to play in a field beside my house.

It was not exactly the Garden of Eden.

There was an industrial estate at one side and a busy road cutting beneath a bridge at another.

You’d find bits of weird rubbish in the field, fly-tipped or left by teenagers when they had parties.

But the grass was long and wild and there were plenty of places for me and my mates to run around, firing pretend bullets at each other from guns made of sticks.

Last time I went back to where I grew up, there was no field just a new estate of houses.

This ‘swallowing up’ of open green spaces is happening across the country – playing fields sold off, woodlands sold off, development spreading onto every spare patch of land.

And of course, people need somewhere to live…

I get that.

But we also need places to play – not just kids but adults too.

When the coronavirus lockdown kicked in, many people headed out into their locales, seeking wide spaces away from people, to go running, walking, or just sit with their loved ones and a picnic.

Suddenly these spaces were cherished by millions, instead of only a few kids and dog walkers.

We realised the true value of them.

We realised that they offered space to think. Space to exercise. Space to calm us down.

These weren’t ‘valueless’ spaces just waiting for some business to come and plonk houses or flats on them…

They had a long-term social, cultural and economic value as places for people in urban areas to get exercise and peace of mind.

There are massive health benefits to spending time outdoors in fresh air, where we can see, smell and touch nature, both for mental and physical health.

It could even reduce the costs of healthcare in the UK over the long term.

This is because spending time outdoors in nature has been linked to:

  • Reduced risk of type 2 diabetes
  • Longer life
  • Healthier blood pressure

Research has shown a connection between the amount of time spent in nature and reduced stress, anxiety, and depression.

In a 2015 study, researchers looked at the brain activity of people after a 90-minute walk in either an urban setting or a natural setting.

Those who walked in nature showed lower levels of activity in their prefrontal cortex, which is an area where repetitive, negative thoughts can occur.

Dr. Strauss, director of geriatric psychiatry at Harvard-affiliated Cambridge Health Alliance said:

“When people are depressed or under high levels of stress, this part of the brain malfunctions, and people experience a continuous loop of negative thoughts.” He added: “Having something pleasant to focus on like trees and greenery helps distract your mind from negative thinking, so your thoughts become less filled with worry.”

When you worry less and stress less, you reduce the amount of cortisol in your bloodstream, which in turn reduces inflammation and lowers blood pressure.

So having access to open green space might do more for our health than any number of faddish diets, prescription pills and exercise machines.

Which is why, as reported in the Times the other week, the government is now starting a pilot scheme to “ease pressure on the health service by helping patients to join cycling or walking groups as alternatives to medical intervention.”

Why we’re suddenly being prescribed green space

This move was inspired by a scheme in New Zealand which started in 1998 where GPs give out “green prescriptions” to patients.

By encouraging these patients to go out into green spaces and engage with nature, while getting gentle exercise, they could reduce or remove many of these problems early, rather than dealing with them with medicine and procedures.

So in theory, this new UK innovation announced by the environment secretary George Eustice is great news.

The idea is that people will be encouraged by the GP to do exercise classes outdoors, visit local green spaces and enjoy activities like gardening.

He said: “If successful, this will be scaled up across the country, making full use of our national parks and areas of outstanding beauty so we can ease the burden on our whole NHS. We know that people benefit both physically and mentally from being in nature. These pilots will help us to understand how best to connect people . . . with the beautiful British countryside.”

But this also feels very contradictory.

Because at the very same time as announcements like these are made, the amount of green space available for ordinary people to use is rapidly disappearing, as the government oversees an unrelenting sell-off.

Only a few weeks ago, former Leeds United footballers had to campaign to stop houses being built on the sports fields where they learned to play when they were kids.

In 1931, the TV Harrison Ground was gifted to the children of Leeds by a local war hero, Thomas Vernon Harrison, who had helped raise funds to buy it.

Yet now it was pegged as a site for 61 new homes.

It’s a pattern that’s happening across the country, which makes this latest government initiative sound hypocritical.

So I’ll be interested to see if there are any policy changes to preserve these urban natural spaces to go alongside this new initiative.

However, my rantings aside, if you can get yourself out into a natural environment at least once a week, it could be the greatest preventative medicine you’ll ever try.