A team based in the UK and led by an academic from Plymouth University Peninsula Schools of Medicine and Dentistry has carried out a review investigating the health benefit of contact with the natural environment. This is being widely reported as finding a link between contact with the environment and health. But that’s not really true. Well, not at all true. The team found that the majority of quantitative studies reported no effect on health and well-being but there was limited evidence to suggest positive effects on self-reported health, quality of life and physical activity levels. Also, small numbers of participants reported increased mental fatigue and greater feelings of anxiety. Eh?
This Cochrane review comes at a time when there is growing research and policy interest in the potential for using the natural environment to enhance human health and well-being and it is being proposed that contact with the natural environment has a positive impact on health and well-being. The claim is activities such as unpaid litter picking, tree planting or path maintenance and the opportunities for physical activity, greater connection with local environments, enhanced social connections within communities, and improved self-esteem these bring make you live longer.
For those unfamiliar with the Cochrane Collaboration and the reviews they publish regarding (principally) medical research, the idea is simple. You take lots of similar, small studies and combine the data to come up with a bigger study to get a better result. Sounds great in theory but it’s a bit like saying “if you collect lots of individual dog poops and put them into a great big pile, it turns into a nugget of pure gold”.
In this case the key word is quantitative in the first line. The nineteen studies reviewed included numerical data (quantitative) and text from interviews (qualitative), together with data from 3,603 participants who came from the UK, US, Canada and Australia. In the qualitative studies people reported feeling better. They liked the opportunity for increased social contact, especially if they had been socially isolated through, for example, mental ill-health. They also valued a sense of achievement, being in nature and provision of a daily structure. But the numbers showed it was just a feeling and actually had no health benefit at all.
“Research into this area is not very robust and quality of the design and reporting is low, therefore we cannot draw any definite conclusions about any positive or negative effects. However, participants perceived that there was a benefit,” said Dr Kerryn Husk, research fellow from Plymouth University Peninsula Schools of Medicine and Dentistry and the lead author of the Cochrane Review. Clutching at the final straw he added: “We were able to develop a conceptual framework that illustrates the range of interlinked mechanism through which people believe they potentially achieved health and well-being benefits. We hope this will help future research on this this topic.”