Living near woodlands improves young people’s mental health

living near woodlands
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Living near woodlands has been found to improve cognitive development and lower the risk of emotional and behavioural problems in young people

A new study conducted by researchers at University College London (UCL) and Imperial College London examined the links between different types of natural urban environments and young people’s cognitive development, mental health and overall wellbeing.

They used data relating to 3,568 children and teenagers, aged nine to 15 years, from 31 schools across London, where 1 in 10 between the ages of five and 16 are already estimated to suffer from a clinical mental health illness.

Exposure to woodland

The results showed that higher daily exposure to woodland was associated with higher scores for cognitive development and a 16% lower risk of emotional and behavioural problems two years later.

Lead author, PhD student Mikaël Maes of UCL said:

“Previous studies have revealed positive associations between exposure to nature in urban environments, cognitive development and mental health.

“Why these health benefits are received remains unclear, especially in adolescents.

“These findings contribute to our understanding of natural environment types as an important protective factor for an adolescent’s cognitive development and mental health and suggest that not every environment type may contribute equally to these health benefits.

“Forest bathing, for example (being immersed in the sights, sounds and smells of a forest), is a relaxation therapy that has been associated with physiological benefits, supporting the human immune function, reducing heart rate variability and salivary cortisol, and various psychological benefits.

“However, the reasons why we experience these psychological benefits from woodland remain unknown.”

Joint senior author Professor Mireille Toledano of the MRC Centre for Environment and Health and principal investigator of the Study of Cognition, Adolescents and Mobile Phones (SCAMP), Imperial College London said:

“It’s been suggested previously that the benefits of natural environments to mental health are comparable in magnitude to family history, parental age and even more significant than factors like the degree of urbanisation around you, but lower than your parents’ socio-economic status.

“Sensory and non-sensory pathways have been suggested as potentially important for delivering cognition and mental health benefits received from exposure to nature.

“It’s critical for us to tease out why natural environments are so important to our mental health throughout the life course.

“Does the benefit derive from the physical exercise we do in these environments, from the social interactions we often have in them, or from the fauna and flora we get to enjoy in these environments or a combination of all of these?”

Joint senior author Professor Kate Jones of UCL said:

“One possible explanation for our findings may be that audio-visual exposure through vegetation and animal abundance provides psychological benefits, of which both features are expected in higher abundance in woodland.

“Even though our results show that urban woodland is associated with adolescent’s cognitive development and mental health, the cause of this association remains unknown.”

The study was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), Medical Research Council (MRC) and National Institute for Health Research and involved researchers from, University College London (UCL), Imperial College London, Birkbeck, University of London.

The full study has been published in Nature Sustainability.

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