I’m lucky to live in a city nicknamed the Emerald City because of its abundance of evergreen trees and other greenery.
Year after year, Seattle is included in the top 10 healthiest cities in America.
Coincidence? No. A mild climate and lots of opportunities for urban hiking, kayaking, and biking keep us active. But I read more and more studies that associate green spaces with better overall health.
And rather than just providing an outdoor gym, green spaces—which I define as anything from untamed wilderness to a roomful of houseplants—can also decrease stress, increase our sense of well-being, and improve learning and memory.
Find a green space and relax
Most studies on green space and mental health are being done for urban planning reasons. The results encourage civic leaders to include more green belts or city parks in their urban designs. After all, a happier, healthier population is usually a more productive one.
How does a green space impact mental health?
There is no one answer to this question. Researchers believe there are several factors, as green spaces
- provide opportunities for physical activity;
- provide places for social interaction (walks with friends, children’s play dates, company BBQs);
- improve air quality (which would you rather deep breathe, fresh air or city air full of exhaust fumes?);
- dampen urban noises (many studies link noise pollution with stress);
- increase social integration (public green spaces can be used by everyone).
A more recent study out of the UK showed that how close you live to a green space matters, too. People living within about a quarter of a mile from a park or play area or nature reserve reported “greater happiness, sense of worth, and life satisfaction.”
Green spaces for brain health
Children may benefit the most from being exposed to green spaces.
A study published last year looked at the cognitive differences between children raised near green spaces and those not.
The team of researchers found the children raised in homes surrounded by the natural environment had more activity in the regions of their brain associated with learning and the ability to engage with others. Those children also experienced less distraction and a sharpened memory, key indicators to a child’s ability to be successful academically and socially.
Another study supports the concept of “green schoolyards” to decrease stress and increase physical activity.
Green schoolyards include outdoor classrooms, vegetable gardens, native or storm water capture gardens, or more traditional playgrounds.
Green schoolyards offer an opportunity for children to experience a healthy outdoor environment as part of their daily lives. After school hours, they provide value to the entire community through improved health, higher rates of community and family engagement, and increased opportunities for active outdoor play and relaxation.
As for adults, many studies have shown a correlation between time spent outdoors and better memory and cognitive function.
Create a personal green space
I have a large garden, and although I frequently curse the maintenance involved to keep it looking decent, I can’t imagine living without it.
My garden provides ample opportunity for physical exercise, but I’ve also created a few peaceful sitting areas where my husband and I can unwind after a busy day.
And the vegetable garden and fruit trees give me lots of fresh produce for healthy meals!
Not everyone has or wants a large yard. But it’s pretty easy to create mini-green spaces that will be beneficial, as well.
Large pots stuffed with perennials, annuals, herbs, fruits (strawberries love pots), or vegetables (tomatoes also love pots) can provide bright spots of color, interesting textures, or just healthy snacks. Set up a small table and chairs to create a relaxing space for reading or visiting.
Green spaces can be indoors, too.
I read one study that looked at using houseplants in hospital rooms to decrease patient stress.
Choose a variety of plants with different sizes and leaf shapes. Many types of indoor plants can also help clean the air.
- Sansevieria or snake plant
- Spider plant
- Aloe vera (break off a stem and use the sap for sunburn)
- Rubber tree
- Peace lily
- Jade tree
- Lucky bamboo
- Aspidistra or cast iron plant
And most of them are hard to kill, a must for me 🙂