Report: Access to Nature Improves Health Outcomes

After spending most of the last year indoors, Latinos and all Americans are ready to experience the world around us, again — including spending much-needed time outdoors.

Not only is the prospect of walking on trails, hiking, camping, and other recreational activities exciting, it will lead to better health outcomes.

People’s access to places such as parks, trails, as well as other green spaces is correlated to increased levels of physical activity and other positive health effects, according to new research from Stanford University.

“Nature experience boosts memory, attention and creativity as well as happiness, social engagement and a sense of meaning in life,” said Gretchen Daily, senior author on the paper and faculty director of the Stanford Natural Capital Project. “It might not surprise us that nature stimulates physical activity, but the associated health benefits – from reducing cancer risks to promoting metabolic and other functioning – are really quite astonishing.”

The Study and Its Findings about Access to Nature, Green Spaces

The research, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, outlines how people can experience health issues due to limited nature spaces in their area.

Along with a host of systemic problems impacting the Latino community, this issue was highlighted during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Over the past year of shelter-in-place restrictions, we’ve learned how valuable and fulfilling it can be to spend time outdoors in nature, especially for city-dwellers,” said study lead author Roy Remme, a postdoctoral researcher at the Stanford Natural Capital Project. “We want to help city planners understand where green spaces might best support people’s health, so everyone can receive nature’s benefits.”

Lack of physical activity in the U.S. results in $117 billion a year in related health care costs. It contributes to 3.2 million deaths globally every year.

Researchers outline key points concerning physical activity and access to nature, including: Improves Health Outcomes Access Nature

  • Physical activity has positive impacts on health
  • Exposure to nature is often associated with physical activity
  • Physical activity in nature may provide additional health benefits, compared with such activity indoors and in the built environment

Their findings lead to a solid conclusion, according to the researchers.

“The use of public space for outdoor [physical activity] is recognized to be essential, especially in cities, as highlighted by responses to the COVID-19 pandemic,” they state in the report. “While issuing stay-at-home orders, many governments allowed residents to go outside for exercise to promote health and well-being.”

Moreover, green space can provide other benefits to the community-at-large, according to Sarah Cafasso with the Stanford Natural Capital Project.

“In cities, nature provides cooling shade to neighborhood streets, safe harbor for pollinators and rainwater absorption to reduce flooding,” she writes in a recent press release. “It’s widely understood that physical activity improves human health, but how parks, lakes, trees and other urban green spaces boost physical activity and overall wellbeing is an unsolved piece of the puzzle.”

Green space is good. But there is a problem.

Many groups, including Latinos, lack equitable access to these kinds of natural, open spaces.

“Many millions of people live in urban neighborhoods lacking sufficient accessible space that is safe and conducive to exercise for all its residents,” the research wrote.

Latinos and Access to Nature, Green Spaces

Latinos and other people of color need greater access to green spaces.

Fewer Latinos than whites say their neighborhood has safe play spaces for kids, according to a Salud America! Research Review.

Worse, Latino children are among those experiencing the worst health outcomes due to a lack of access to nature areas.

Increasing access to outdoor spaces like hiking trails and promoting physical activity is important for everyone, but especially for Latino children who are at high risk for developing obesity, diabetes, and other conditions.

According to RWJF’s 2020 State of Childhood Obesity report: greenway for safe routes to housing and public transit

  • One of seven children have obesity. One of five children of color have obesity.
  • Obesity rates were significantly higher for Latino (20.7%), Black (22.9%), American Indian/Alaska Native (28.5%), Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander (39.8%) children as compared to white children (11.7%).

Children with obesity are at greater risk of developing serious conditions. These include type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and cardiovascular disease. Obesity also increases the risk of developing a severe case of COVID-19.

“Children who are from under-resourced communities and diverse racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds are less likely to meet the minimal national standards for physical activity and more likely to suffer from negative health effects related to a lack of physical activity. Because of the personal, social, and built-environment limitations on under-resourced communities, African American and Hispanic youth have substantially higher levels of overweight and obesity compared to their Caucasian counterparts, placing racial/ethnic minority populations at a greater risk of health complications later in life,” according to the NCCOR program brief.

What You Can Do

The Stanford researchers urge action to address inequities in access to green spaces.

“Our ultimate goal is to create more healthy, equitable and sustainable cities,” said Anne Guerry, co-author and Chief Strategy Officer at the Natural Capital Project. “This research is actionable – and gets us one big step closer.”

Getting kids from underserved communities outside and on hiking trails is important.

But many barriers continue to affect the health of Latinos and other people of color.

Has your city identified racism as a public health crisis?

Systemic racism makes it harder for Latinos and other people of color to get healthcare, access to health-promoting assets like reliable mass transit and green spaces, education, employment, and more, which has been exacerbated by the COVID-19.

Our team at Salud America! built an Action Pack, “Get Your City to Declare Racism a Public Health Crisis Action Pack” to help anyone get input from local social justice groups and advocates of color, and start a conversation with city leaders for a resolution to declare racism a public health issue along with a commitment to take action to change policies and practices. It will also help build local support.





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