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Opinion Confirming What We Already Know: Human Health Is Linked To Nature

The ongoing Ebola crisis and other challenges offer stark reminders of the vital link between human health and nature – a topic that’s emerging as a theme at this week’s ACES Conference, where momentum is building for a new declaration that intends to solve pressing challenges impacting both the environment and communities.

10 December 2014 | Chronic conditions kill, disable, and ruin the quality of life of millions of Americans. Indeed, more than one-third of U.S. adults are now obese, incurring $148 billion in medical costs annually and contributing to 18% of U.S. adult deaths in recent years. Our healthcare costs are the highest per capita in the world. And that amount keeps increasing. We, as a species, are now far more sedentary and disconnected from the land than our forerunners, and we are paying the price.

But consider an alternative. Consider a forest trail. Consider a fresh breeze. Consider the robust body of evidence linking human health to nature.

On both the quantitative and qualitative levels, we increasingly understand how more time outdoors improves our well-being. “Nature deficit” is linked to higher rates of anxiety disorders and of mood disorders, such as depression. Exposure to green space counters these tendencies. People who live near natural settings are likely to report better mental health; urban parks are known to lower stress and elevate mood; and studies have even linked green neighborhoods with lower rates of obesity in children and longer life spans in elders.

Of course, there’s more to this equation than simple statistics. There are the triumphant faces of children we’ve seen improve their health through outdoor activity. There are the vibrant communities that draw us outside with parks and trails. And there are the stronger hearts and leaner bodies that make doctors smile.

All this is spurring health professionals across the country to recognize something our ancestors accepted as fact. Humans are part of nature, our connection with nature is a fundamental human need, and we believe access to nature is a basic right.

To that end, 30 leading health officials, academics and nature-focused nonprofits have issued the Wingspread Declaration on Health and Nature. The Declaration calls for concerted action from health, environmental, academic, governmental, and corporate actors to cooperatively reconnect people with nature and secure new commitments to protecting nature. The connection of ecosystems to human well-being was central to the Millennium Ecosystem assessments, and we need to make that connection real for families across the globe.

Doing so is eminently achievable, for it requires no medical breakthrough. We begin by recognizing that nature, and access to nature, are important components of our health infrastructure. Investment in places for healing and places to promote health yields returns as beneficial to us as those in any stock portfolio.

If nature contact were a medication, we would be prescribing it to everybody. It is safe, it is effective in preventing and treating a wide range of diseases and improving well-being, and, compared to many medications, it costs less, has fewer side effects and doesn’t need to be administered by a specialist. To ensure our return on investment is fully understood, we’ll combine rigorous research results, case studies, and best practices, to empower good decision-making in our communities.

Science has shown us that time in nature can help counter obesity, depression and many other ailments. We have a moral imperative to improve access to nature for communities with the highest health needs, and in doing so we not only prevent health problems but treat the crisis at hand. That’s why the Declaration calls on our health institutions to include nature in their practices and prescriptions; calls on schools to ensure all children grow up connected to nature; calls on elected officials and philanthropists to invest in parks, trails and green spaces; and calls on employers to reconnect their employees with nature. And as we regain a connection with the land, we will benefit as much economically as we will from good health.

We know enough to act now – to improve our well-being on a broad scale. Join us and others by endorsing the Wingspread Declaration on Health and Nature as we step outside to enjoy that forest trail, relish the fresh breeze, and pursue a healthier life. If you happen to be in Washington, DC for the ACES (A Community of Ecosystem Services) Conference, join us December 10 for a town hall conversation on connecting health and nature.

Bobby Cochran is Executive Director of the Willamette Partnership; Howard Frumkin is Dean of the School of Public Health at the University of Washington; Rand Wentworth is President of the Land Trust Alliance; Raymond Baxter is Senior Vice President, Community Benefit, Research and Health Policy at Kaiser Permanente; Rue Mapp is CEO and Founder of Outdoor Afro. The Wingspread Declaration is available for review and endorsement here.
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