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BLOG: Nature, Water and Health

Jules Pretty is Professor of Environment and Society at the University of Essex. He is the author of many books and a leading advocate for green exercise. Here he explains how being exposed to green and blue environments is critical for our physical and mental well being.

0715 Forth Canoe Club Course Rob Ej150

Credit: Rob Eyton-Jones

At the University of Essex, we have worked for 15 years on how natural environments produce mental and physical health benefits for us all. We called this green exercise, and it includes places with water. It works for all people, young and old, rich and poor, all cultural groups, in all green environments whether urban park or nature reserve, whether wild or farmed, small or large. We have shown that a five-minute dose of nature brings immediate well-being – just go outside. All activities work too, and most people receive an additional benefit from social engagement – doing things together.

There is something very ancient going on here: we humans evolved in natural environments, learned to cooperate, shaped the land and water for food and resource. Now we can measure how good this nature and social engagement is for us.

In just the last two generations, world GDP per person has tripled; in the affluent countries it has quadrupled. Each of us, on average, has more. This planet now produces 35% more food per person; worldwide infant mortality has fallen from 150 to 50 per 1000 live births, in affluent countries down to 5 per 1000.

Yet it is not all good. We consume more, and provoke climate change. We have more stuff; yet we are not happier. We have solved many infectious diseases, yet stumbled into an era of health problems caused by our behaviours. The way we live today is killing people in affluent countries – through cardiovascular disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, mental ill-health, dementias and loneliness. The costs to the UK are now eye-watering: about £150 billion every year for treatment by the NHS.

We know the primary causes, yet have been unable to create national and local environments and economies that will lead to better health. Too many calories consumed, too little daily physical activity, irregular social and cognitive engagement, too few engagements with natural places.

Our behaviours are shaped by urban and rural design and planning, by transport systems, by advertising and corporate self-interest, by access to green space and cultural norms. We know that residents of London walk 292 miles per year; but people in rural England walk just 122 miles on average. Obesity afflicts 35% of adults in the United States; in New York’s Manhattan, where there are pavements and public transport, people walk more: only 15% are obese. This is one area where the British Canoeing Clear Access, Clear Waters Charter can help – to encourage more people to be active in accessible natural places, especially with water.

Further research has filled other gaps. It has been shown that greener environments are equigenic, reducing social inequality and having particularly positive impacts on mental well-being, that physical labour in the home is important for health and longevity, and that blue space is as important as green: it is not the colour that matters but the opportunity to behave in a way that improves well-being. At the same time, design of human settlements and buildings influences human health, suggesting that natural places can be thought of as healing places. Exposure to nature reduces internal stress markers and produces healthier cortisol profiles. Knowing is important too: knowledge of being treated (both dose of nature and drug medication) causes release of endogenous opioids that are non-addictive: the placebo effect demonstrates the mechanisms for self-healing (of some conditions).

We have recently developed the new idea of Green Minds: this suggests we can have both a sustainable planet and contented people. We know this: environments shape bodies, brains and minds; minds in turn drive body behaviours that shape the external environment. The Green Mind centres on a simple idea that the brain comprises two parts. One is ancient, and centres on the bottom brain-stem: it is fast-acting, involuntary and driver of fight-and-flight behaviours. The other part is more recent: it is slower, voluntary, the centre for learning, and driver of rest-and-digest. The bottom brain reacts before you think. The top brain is calming.

In modern affluent economies dominated now by material consumption, the ancient mode is over-active. Modern life is lived on simmer, ramping up heart and lung activity, raising blood pressure, switching off the immune system and unnecessary memory formation. Too much impacts badly on gastrointestinal (more ulcers and inflammatory bowel syndrome), immune (lower wound healing, more colds), cardiovascular (hardened arteries) and endocrine systems (more type 2 diabetes).

But we know this too: there are many methods to quieten an over-active brain, all with one principle in common. Immersion and attentiveness improve well-being. Activities that are immersive and involve focused attention reduce oxygen consumption, lower heart rate and blood pressure, and increase releases of serotonin and dopamine: we feel better. Three types of engagement increase regular attentiveness and immersion:

  • Nature engagement;
  • Social engagement;
  • Craft engagement.

And this is where canoeing has a key role to play. When you walk in nature, watch a sunset, sit by the waterside, bake a cake, complete a crossword, something else is happening. You are not engaged in material consumption. You are making memories, learning skills, sharing and giving to others. Inside, you are calming the ancient brain, and improving health outcomes. The future of the planet relies on this substitution of non-material consumption, making more of activities with a light footprint and co-delivery of well-being.

Now could be the time for a new ethic: the economy is of course the environment. Nature will survive us all. Meanwhile, the idea of green minds is a route to improving our well-being as well as protecting biodiversity and nature.

References

Pretty J. 2017. The East Country: Almanac Tales of Valley and Shore. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY

Pretty J, Barton J and Rogerson. 2017. Green Mind Theory: How Brain-Body-Behaviour Links into Natural and Social Environments for Healthy Habits. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 14, 706

Pretty J, Barton J, Bharucha Z P, Bragg R, Pencheon D, Wood C and Depledge M H. 2015. Improving health and well-being independently of GDP: dividends of greener and prosocial economies. International Journal of Environmental Health Research 11, 1-26