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Want to reduce your meds? Take a walk in the woods

New study reaffirms the value of getting back into nature for your well-being

Courtney Hale / Getty Images

Taking time each day for a stroll through a park or a walk in the woods could benefit your mental and physical health — reducing the need for medications for such things as asthma, high blood pressureanxiety and depression, according to a study in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine.

The study, which focused on adults living in an urban setting, found that compared to individuals who did not visit parks or green spaces, those who visited them three to four times a week were:

  • 36 percent less likely to be taking blood pressure pills
  • 33 percent less likely to be using medications for anxiety, depression or other mental health issues
  • 26 percent less likely to be taking asthma medications
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“In the present study, the frequency of green space visits was the only type of nature exposure that showed an inverse association with medication use,” the researchers wrote. “This finding is in line with tentative evidence emphasizing the importance of actual use of green space in relation to mental health, and it suggests that the same holds true for other health conditions, such as asthma and hypertension.”

What’s unique about this study?

In the study, researchers in Finland looked closely at 7,321 adults (with a mean age of 54) living in and around Helsinki, the nation’s largest urban area. They determined whether the participants lived within a 10-minute walk of a “green space” (such as a park, forest or meadow) or a “blue space” (such as a lake or river). Participants were also questioned about how frequently they visited green spaces, and about medications they used to deal with depression, anxiety, high blood pressure and asthma.

Armed with this information, the researchers found that simply living near the woods, a park or a river (blue space) did not appear to influence the odds of using any of these medications. In other words, people need to engage with nature to reap its health benefits.

Results reinforce earlier research on mental health

2022 study published in Scientific Reports found that “everyday encounters with birdlife” appear to improve mental well-being not only in healthy individuals but also in those who have been diagnosed with depression.

In that study, a phone app was used to prompt participants to answer several daily questions, including whether they had heard or seen a bird, as well as questions about their mental health. Researchers analyzing the data found significant “positive associations” between seeing or hearing birds and mental well-being.

2019 study published in Scientific Reports found that people who had spent at least 120 minutes in nature over the previous week were significantly more likely to report good health and well-being than those who had had no nature exposure — “including older adults and those with long-term health issues.”

2018 analysis from the U.K.’s University of East Anglia of 143 studies from around the world found that “exposure to greenspace” was associated with a significant reduction in salivary cortisol, a physiological marker of stress. The mega-study, which appeared in the journal Environmental Research, also suggested that exposure to nature appeared to lower the risk of developing type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease and reduce the likelihood of premature death.

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The National Institute on Aging (NIA) also highlighted research in 2022 that found “residential areas with more green space were associated with faster thinking, better attention and higher overall cognitive function in middle-aged women.”

That study, published in JAMA Network Open, included data from 13,594 women (average age of 61) who had taken online cognitive tests that measured psychomotor speed, attention, learning and working memory. Satellite images were used to determine the amount of green space around each participant’s home.

The researchers found that women living in areas with more green space had higher scores on thinking speed, attention and overall cognitive function. From a cognitive perspective, this translated to being 1.2 years younger, according to the NIA.​​

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