Tag Archives: health

Green cities provide a mental health boost that lasts

Dr Ian Alcock

Exeter academic Dr Ian Alcock led on recently published research which shows how quickly moving to a greener area can beenfit human health. He discusses his findings in the below blog, first posted on The Conversation.

It’s been established that enjoying green spaces in otherwise grey urban areas can lead to improved mental health for city-dwellers. But new research has revealed how surprisingly quickly those benefits appear, and how long they last.

Research from the University of Exeter’s European Centre for Environment and Human Health found that people living in towns and cities with more parks and gardens tend to report greater well-being than those without. But it also revealed that relocating to a greener part of town led to improvements in their mental health that lasted for at least three years.

There are other life changes that influence mental health, and many of those do so gradually, or else seem to be only short-lived. Job promotion and marriage boost well-being in the short term, for example, and financial windfalls can lead to gradual improvements. But these new findings indicate that simply increasing the ratio of green to grey in urban neighbourhoods is likely to provide benefits that are not only immediate, but which continue to deliver benefits long afterwards.

The research, just published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, used data from the British Household Panel Survey, a long-running household survey project, based in Essex. We analysed five consecutive years of mental health questionnaires, answered by people who had relocated to a different residential area between the second and third years.

Two groups of people were tracked: 600 who moved to greener urban areas, and 470 who moved to areas that were less green. While the group who moved to greener suburbs showed significant improvements for all three years after their relocation, there was not a corresponding decline in mental health for those who moved to less green areas. There was, however, a decline in the mental health of these people in the year before they moved. It’s not clear whether this was some degree of dread at the anticipated relocation, or whether it was declining well-being that lay behind the decision to relocate.

Studying people who relocate from one area to another can offer insights into the effects of town planning decisions that alter the make-up of city neighbourhoods. It’s hard to design and carry out experiments that involve the radical “re-greening” and “de-greening” of our cities to see what effects these processes have. But we can get important clues by looking at the average effects that result from the loss or gain of green space after someone has moved home.

Endless cities risk much grey, not enough green. wilhelmja

The benefits we’ve observed have implications for planning policy, which aims to improve public health through urban design. Our findings suggest that improved mental health is not the result simply of the novelty of living in a greener area, which might wear off quickly. Creating parks and green corridors in our increasingly urban landscapes could represent good value-for-money public health services, delivering long term benefits to community health.

How good is green space for urban residents? An earlier study published in Psychological Science estimated the effects on mental health delivered by a 1% difference in urban green space, also working with Household Panel Survey data from England and controlling for the effects of personality. The study found that living in an area with high rather than low green space was equal to roughly a third of the benefit of being married, and a tenth of the benefit of having a job.

Importantly, in estimating the effects of green space, the team accounted for other factors which can influence mental health, such as the individuals’ income, family and employment circumstances. They also accounted for area factors which may overlap with urban greenness, such as the socio-economic profile of the neighbourhood.

Depression and depressive disorders are now the leading cause of disability in middle to high income countries – mental health is a critical public health issue of modern times. And it’s quite possible this trend is related to how quickly the world’s population is moving to the city: in the world’s more developed regions, more than three-quarters of the population live in urban environments, with the reduced access to the natural world that brings.

So while these studies don’t show that relocating to a greener area will definitely increase happiness, the findings fit with other experimental work that shows how short spells in a green space does improve people’s mood, and cognitive functioning. Our findings join those from earlier epidemiological studies that clearly demonstrate the link between health benefits and green space.

Ian Alcock receives funding from the Economic and Social Research Council. The European Centre for Environment and Human Health is funded by the European Regional Development Fund and the European Social Fund Convergence Programme for Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly.

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
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The Children’s Health and Exercise Research Centre – the First 25 Years

girltreadmill_mainAs the Children’s Health and Exercise Research Centre celebrates its 25th anniversary, its Director Professor Neil Armstrong reflects on what has been achieved – and how much is still to be done if we are to tackle rising levels of child obesity.

The Children’s Health and Exercise Research Centre’s  initial studies of 800 11 to 16-year-olds identified for the first time the prevalence of coronary risk factors in British children. Unhealthy levels of cholesterol in the blood and body fat were demonstrated but uniquely the findings characterised the fitness and physical activity patterns of children and adolescents.  It was shown for the first time that many young people in the UK had adopted sedentary lifestyles; boys were generally more active than girls and physical activity declined through adolescence. When the findings were presented on BBC and ITN national television news on the day of publication in the British Medical Journal the media coined the phrase couch potatoes’ to describe the phenomenon.  These data predicted the current paediatric obesity epidemic.

Further studies demonstrated gender differences in physical activity to be present as young as five years of age. A re-visit in 1999 to communities studied 10 years earlier provided the first indication that young people’s physical activity levels had stabilised at a sedentary level. Other research in this health-related area investigated physical activity in relation to diet, body fat, visceral fat, obesity, micro vascular function, psychological well-being, physical education, blindness, diabetes, heart rate variability, and cystic fibrosis. These aspects of the work and its implications for present and future health and wellbeing have been widely disseminated in the national and international press and featured in over 300 television and radio programmes. The increase in public awareness of the issues resulted in the data generating questions in both Houses of Parliament, the presentation of invited seminars to MPs in Westminster, private audiences with Ministers and with Prince Philip at Buckingham Palace.

The impact of the research on children’s health and well-being was recognised in 1998 with the award of the Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education. The Prize was the first to be awarded in paediatric sport and exercise medicine and the team had the honour of going to Buckingham Palace to receive the prize from HM the Queen who had shown great interest in the research when she visited the Centre with Prince Philip three years earlier.

The initial studies in the 1980s raised numerous theoretical and methodological problems regarding the assessment and interpretation of young people’s responses to exercise in relation to age, maturation and gender and the examination of these issues has been a major focus of the Centre’s research programme. The Centre through its research and dissemination has been at the forefront of establishing that children are not mini-adults and the research programme has encompassed sick children, ‘normal’ healthy children and elite young athletes. This week the Centre is hosting for the second time the world’s most prestigious paediatric conference, the International Symposium of the European Group of Pediatric Work Physiology, where the latest world-wide research on many of the lines of enquiry initiated in the Centre will be presented.

25 years on and paediatric exercise medicine has been firmly established as a major research topic around the world and the Centre has helped to keep the issue of children’s health and exercise in the public eye. Our research has time and time again shown that children respond to exercise in a different manner to adults, that physical activity is essential for healthy growth and maturation and that obesity is simply the result of consuming more energy than you burn up.

Looking back as we celebrate our first quarter of a century we must thank the over 5,000 westcountry children who have willingly given their time, blood, sweat and energy to make the research possible and their laughter to make it in enjoyable. Great progress has been made: we now know a great deal about how the young body responds to exercise and understand the importance of physical activity on child and adolescent health. However, child obesity is at an all-time high and society seems unable to find a way to translate the scientific findings into practical solutions. We know that our children need to be more active, but how can we get them away from their televisions, their computers and their smart phones and onto the football pitch or running track or simply out into the playground? The Centre’s challenge for the next 25 years is to embrace new technologies and pursue innovative research programmes in paediatric exercise medicine with the objectives of enhancing further understanding of the exercising child and promoting young people’s health and wellbeing.

Posted by Professor Neil Armstrong (Professor of Paediatric Physiology / Deputy Vice-Chancellor)