Often, the measures of human health are determined by specific social determinants, specifically, the distribution of power, knowledge, and wealth. With more and more people migrating to cities for better opportunities and quality of life, another social determinant must be considered.
A well-functioning natural environment is a vital component of modern public health. A healthy human-environmental interface is necessary for good health to flourish. According to the Legatum Institute, a high-quality natural environment is one pathway to prosperity.
Improvements in the natural environment improve a country’s sense of well-being and satisfaction. Citizens with greater access to the natural environment enjoy higher levels of health and well-being. This directly contributes to lower levels of mortality and illness and higher levels of productivity and social capital.
Measuring the natural environment
There are several elements contributing to a diverse natural environment. There are physical considerations, natural elements like diverse vegetation, local biodiversity, air quality, and water features. There are also social and symbolic elements. These are things like natural playscapes, community gardens, and green spaces.
Each component is essential to positive cognitive, emotional, and physical health outcomes. Legatum, a London-based think tank, uses certain characteristics of the natural environment to assess a country’s ranking in their annual Prosperity Index.
A country’s natural environment is measured against three areas:
- Environmental quality
- Environmental pressures
- Preservation efforts
Each area is an indicator of how healthy a nation and its citizens are. Clean air, an attribute of environmental quality, brings immediate health and well-being benefits to a nation. Preservation efforts are an assessment of how well countries protect their natural environment.
In Legatum’s most recent prosperity rankings, Slovenia, the United Kingdom, Finland, New Zealand, and Luxembourg were the top five ranked countries for the natural environment.
Proven health benefits of exposure to nature
At a micro level, the natural environment encourages physical and mental promotion. As part of a strong, integrated public health practice, the natural environment can positively modify physical or mental impairments.
There is mounting evidence to support nature’s positive effects on an individual’s physical and mental health. Below, we explore four benefits individuals gain from greater access to the natural environment:
1. Nature reduces stress hormone levels.
The hustle and bustle of city life are detrimental to your health. Urban stress can negatively affect a person’s health. Stressful urban environments can increase the risk of depression and anxiety. The natural environment combats the urban environmental risk for mental disorders.
Studies show that contact with nature improves stress reduction. Spending 20 to 30 minutes experiencing nature reduces salivary cortisol and alpha-amylase, two physiological biomarkers of stress.
2. It promotes learning.
Converging evidence strongly suggest that the natural environment can boost learning and development. Urban nature experiences provide a safer and more cooperative context for learning. For children, this can result in improvements in academic learning and personal development.
3. It facilitates physical activity.
Technological advances and a more urbanized environment have contributed to the decline of physical activity in adults. This decline is a factor in the rise of physical disabilities and diseases in adults. Despite the rise of indoor structured activities, outdoor activities offer greater benefits than indoor exercise.
Exercising in green spaces can combat the health challenges present in today’s urban environment. More access to the natural environment means more opportunities for exercise. The restorative properties of outdoor physical activity can then drive behavior changes, directly impacting markers of health.
4. It increases happiness.
The natural environment has a direct impact on an individual’s emotional and cognitive state. Greater exposure to nature can have an affective impact on psychological well-being. Even something as simple as a window view of nature have been found to positively influence mood and cognition.
The ability to walk in a natural setting can also decrease rumination, a psychological marker associated with depression and anxiety.
A natural approach to prosperity
These micro-level benefits have direct implications for macro-level issues. Individuals who experience higher degrees of well-being and life satisfaction make positive contributions to a nation’s macroeconomic performance.
The natural environment and a nation’s prosperity are intertwined.
A healthier population produces economic stability and contributes to a strong economic foundation. Similarly, safeguarding the natural environment mitigates environment-related risks. Maintaining environmental sustainability underscores greater economic growth. This results in better pathways to prosperity.