If “Green Space” Were a Pill …

Cypress Knees Chippokes SP

When my father came to visit, we spent only a small portion of time at home, mostly to cook or play Monopoly. Otherwise, he and I and my boys were out in the natural world, visiting state parks and throwing treats to the sea birds that follow the ferries near us. The good news is that we do not always have to travel to a state park to get to our “green space” – in fact a short 5 minute walk takes us to a very nice trail that curves through forests and around ponds and grassy meadows.

It turns out, especially for children, that having to walk more than 20 minutes to a green space is correlated with poor health and wellbeing. I found this out when I was reading a fascinating article that reviewed research examining children’s wellbeing and green space. The review, published in the Journal of Pediatric Nursing (http://www.pediatricnursing.org/article/S0882-5963(17)30185-9/fulltext), ultimately included information from over 75,000 children in multiple studies.

The overall benefits of spending time in green space, for children, were such a long promising list, I started thinking about pharmaceuticals. Imagine, if you will, a parent who is told, “This pill, taken at least once daily, could improve your child’s memory, focus, attention, friendships, and self-esteem while reducing stress, attention deficit, hyperactivity, and problem behaviors. Oh, and you can actually take this pill as often as needed, with few side effects. If you have to take a break from this pill, there will be no harmful withdrawal symptoms!”

Well, that’s green space for you. Take your daily green space prescription daily, and it’s good for you and your children. The problem for a lot of parents and caregivers is simply a matter of access. How do you get to safe green space? If it’s greater than 20 minutes by foot, people won’t go. Time is another issue. In working families, evenings are packed with dinner, homework, and sometimes other activities – leaving very little time for that all important green time. And, let’s face it, children are not always cooperative and interested in going for a walk in the woods or by a lake! But — they are not much more cooperative with taking pills for any of the problems outside play time in a green area can address. So, parents, would you rather have your child fuss at you for trying to get them out into nature, or fuss at you and refuse to take their meds? By the way, as always, I am not saying that medication isn’t sometimes necessary. Children who have to take medication for behavioral health issues also can benefit from green space! And there’s no nasty medication interaction to worry about ….

The author of this review article makes a crucial plea for thinking about including more green space in developed areas, such as neighborhoods, schools, and even hospital gardens. Ya’ll, we humans respond so well to nature that simply looking out a window at a natural setting, or looking at a photograph of nature on the wall, can reduce our stress. Let’s not be stingy with what the planet gives us.

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Greener ‘Hoods = Better Moods

 

Foggy morning slim moon

Almost every morning, my dog and I get up around sunrise and go for a run along a nearby trail. To me, this is an almost magical time, full of cacophonous bird and frog song, and the moon and planets sloping towards the other side of the planet. My dog agrees, reporting back to me that the world is full of the rich scents of deer and other animals who have been active all night. Our run together is only a brief taste of what he really wants – to be bounding through the forests and streams near our home.

And yet, there are times when I drive by new developments where hardly a tree is visible, or through cities where only a small, scraggly tree dots the pavement here and there, bravely hanging on in hopes of succession, I suppose. These are, in my view, hostile habitats for both me and my dog. And probably trees as well.

Turns out, adults fair better when their developed communities are intermingled with forested spaces. They feel better, and their mood appears to be improved in these types of spaces, according to research published in a 2018 issue of the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29443932). The discussion of the results is fascinating, and highlights the complexity of understanding green space and mood and our lived human lives. We respond well to the presence of green growing plants and trees, but we do not want to be overwhelmed by them. We do best when we have the option to go into a forested area, and come back out. And, the authors suggest, there is likely a strong interplay between the presence of green spaces in communities, our social connectedness in those green spaces (picnics and frisbee anyone?), and the fact that living in a community where green spaces are preserved and enjoyed is a tangible reflection of shared values. In other words, we love green spaces not just for themselves and the beings they host, but for the meaning and connection they provide for us.

Think of the implications for the way we plan and develop communities of all sizes, from local schools and faith institutions, to new communities or shared work spaces.

Green Space Beats the Blues

In case you didn’t see it, there was an article in the New York Times this past weekend highlighting the difficult side effects (withdrawal symptoms) that people face when trying to wean off antidepressants after a long period of use. The authors point out that antidepressants have mostly been tested and confirmed as effective for short term use — which means that everyone who has been on them for years and longer has been something of a guinea pig.

I was chatting about this with a friend in the behavioral health profession, and she pointed out that we hear all about these difficulties but very little about the benefits of being outside for beating back depression. Specifically, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the more variety of greenery around us, the better our mood. (On a side note, it turns out that the more plants we consumer, the happier we are, also!)

So, I went to look at the literature and found a fascinating study in which researchers compared 4338 individuals who happened to be twins – so approximately 2169 pairs of same sex twins. They looked at the individuals’ reports of access to green space as well as their self reported symptoms of anxiety, depression, and stress. The results showed that the more greenery the individuals were around, the better their mood. Now, this is not a head-to-head comparison of green space to antidepressants, but it is something to bear in mind. Unfortunately, if you are like me, the withdrawal symptoms you experience from being away from green spaces might in fact be just as bad — but long term exposure to green space is generally good for you. The more plants and birds and wildlife the better! The study results appeared in the June 2015 Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25631858).