Frequently spending time in green spaces like parks and gardens could help reduce prescription drug use, according to a new study from Finland.
If you're lucky enough to live next to a verdant meadow or picturesque woodland, views of these places from home don't appear to have the same effect. There was no association between prescription medication use and the number of green and aquatic spaces available to people. It's getting out and spending time there that makes a difference.
Researchers from the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare, Tampere University in Finland, and the University of Eastern Finland used data from around 6,000 Helsinki residents, using medications for conditions such as anxiety, insomnia, depression, high blood pressure, and asthma as a proxy for their state of health.
"Exposure to natural environments is thought to be beneficial for human health, but the evidence is inconsistent," write the researchers.
The study participants were quizzed on the medications they were on, as well as how many "green and blue" (natural environments on land and near lakes, rivers, and oceans) spaces they could see from home, how often they took in those views, and how often they spent time or exercised in them.
Compared with less than one weekly visit, three or four visits a week were associated with 33 percent lower odds of using mental health meds, 36 percent lower odds of using blood pressure meds, and 26 percent lower odds of using asthma meds.
Those respective figures drop by 22 percent, 41 percent, and 24 percent respectively for at least five visits per week. The links still held when household income and education were factored in, but accounting for BMI (Body Mass Index) did weaken the associations.
"This finding is in line with tentative evidence emphasizing the importance of actual use of green space in relation to mental health, and it suggests that the same holds true for other health conditions, such as asthma and hypertension," the researchers claim.
The data here isn't enough to show cause and effect – it's worth considering that those with better health have more opportunity and motivation to go outside – but it does demonstrate that there's a potential link here worth exploring further.
It also shows that sitting and contemplating nature doesn't have quite the same effect as going out and spending time in it. Previous studies have shown that it doesn't take long for the effects of being outside to be felt.
That said, green spaces need to be available before people are able to go out and spend time in them – and that's where urban planning comes in, according to the authors behind the new research.
"Mounting scientific evidence supporting the health benefits of nature exposure is likely to increase the supply of high-quality green spaces in urban environments and promote their active use," write the researchers.
"This might be one way to improve health and welfare in cities."
The research has been published in Occupational & Environmental Medicine.