Is there a link between people’s engagement with nature-based activities and their health? While research is rapidly growing in this field, my research indicates that such benefits do indeed exist. There are, nonetheless, some unanswered questions for better understanding the link between the health and wellbeing benefits of environmental volunteering.
In this article I reflect on my research exploring the potential health impacts associated with engaging in environmental volunteering activities. I begin by exploring humans’ relationship with nature and the effects this has on their health. I then write about some of the findings from my research, and reflect on the field’s future directions.
The Human-Nature Relationship and its impact on health
Two years ago I wrote a critical review about a rapidly growing subject, ‘the Human-Nature Relationship and its impact on health’ (1). I began the review as a way to understand humans’ connection to nature and how this changing relationship can have impacts on health, both for humans and nature. Since then, a wealth of literature on this subject has grown (2-4).
This idea of health benefits being linked to engaging with nature is not new, and while reading various articles on the subject I found it had been a subject of interest for over a century, though explored more prominently in the last four decades (5). For instance in 1984 Ulrich published one of the landmark studies in the field (6). In his article he wrote about differences in patients’ needs for pain relief after operations, between those patients with a view of trees outside needing less pain relief than those without such a view.
Another landmark article in the same year was Wilson’s ‘Biophilia’ hypothesis (7). This argues for humanity’s connection to nature beyond engagement. It centres on the idea that we have a subconscious connection with nature on physical, mental and social levels, being part of the global ecological food web. Wilson reasoned that because humans have spent almost 99% of their existence living in nature, they have not had time to evolve to meet the modern technological age. Some researchers have tried to show evidence of this, with examples including people’s preferences for natural scenes over man-made ones (8). However not everyone agrees with this hypothesis. Orr, for example, argues that people can grow to love what they know: this may explain why some prefer urban living to rural (9-10).
A few years ago I attended a UK event hosted by Natural England, which drew people together to discuss the health impacts associated with engaging with nature. One thing that struck me was the large number of UK programmes which had been developed and aimed to improve people’s health through nature-based activities. These activities included forest bathing, animal-assisted therapy, and environmental volunteering programmes (11-13). The latter relates more to my own studies.
While we may think of many things when we consider the term ‘environmental volunteering’, to me it is the practice of unpaid volunteers who spend time engaging in a wide range of conservation activities, including habitat management and ecological restoration (14). Since 2010, there has been a growth in research exploring whether there are health benefits associated with environmental volunteering activities. Some examples I have come across include improvements in physical health and wellbeing outcomes for midlife volunteers, increased levels of positive moods, and improvements in overall wellbeing (13, 15-16). More recently, the University of Essex and The Wildlife Trusts carried out a study of the mental health of the Trust’s volunteers. They
found that after just 6 weeks of environmental volunteering, those volunteers previously experiencing poor levels of mental health found a positive improvement (17). More interestingly, improvements were also found in volunteers’ general health and pro-environmental behaviour, as well as reporting higher levels of physical activity.
Despite these positive findings, an article by Jenkinsen and colleagues states that there is no significant evidence yet to strongly support health impacts associated with volunteering (18). The authors suggest there is a need for more long-term data to help ascertain if there are strong relationships between environmental volunteering activities and personal health.
When speaking to those who work in both environmental organisations and healthcare professions, I have often found an interest in wanting to understand whether there really are health benefits associated with engaging in nature-based activities. Further, if there are health benefits, could these types of activities be seen as an alternative health prescription for those people experiencing various health issues (19). However in order to prescribe these types of nature-based activities as an additional form of eco-health prescription, experts in the field still need to ask the following questions:
- Are there long-term health benefits associated with nature-based activities?
- What types of health benefits may a person experience if they engage in these activities? e.g. positive mood, physical fitness, etc.
- Are there other factors we need to consider?
Knowing the answers to these questions would help not only health professionals in selecting additional forms of eco-health treatments for patients, but also allow environmental volunteering organisations to develop their volunteering programmes to encourage certain health benefits.
In the health sector, knowing about additional forms of eco-health prescriptions for patients could be particularly valuable on two levels. First, patients may prefer these alternative approaches to helping with certain health issues (e.g. depression), and the approaches may generate benefits beyond health, such as making friends or helping in the community. Second, with the growing trend in the number of chronic diseases and psychiatric disorders, costs to the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) could rise as the use of prescriptive drugs and medical interventions increases (19). This anticipated trend is considered to be both undesirable and expensive to the already overwhelmed health-care system (20). Using additional forms of eco-health prescriptions, like engaging in nature-based activities, may both reduce future costs and serve as an additional form of treatment.
Case study: The Conservation Volunteers
In an effort to answer some of the questions raised by the experts, I began to undertake my own research working closely with The Conservation Volunteers (TCV), one of the largest conservation charities in the UK. In particular, I wanted to understand not only the health impacts associated with environmental volunteering activities, but also whether these impacts changed over time.
My journey with TCV began almost a decade ago when I volunteered for them, and I was later inspired to study the health impacts associated with their volunteering activities.
For the past twenty years, TCV have been collecting long-term data measuring the physical and mental health of their volunteers (21). This began with the start of the volunteer programme ‘Green Gyms’® in 1997. This programme was established because not only did TCV want to improve outdoor green space, but also the health and wellbeing of local communities.
The Green Gyms® programme still runs today and involves volunteers throughout the UK. Whilst the questionnaire surveys have changed over the years, TCV has collected data which accurately measure’s volunteer’s physical health and mental wellbeing over time.
What are the health benefits of environmental volunteering? A TCV case study
While going through TCV’s health data I discovered a number of findings which seem to support the ever-increasing research on the benefits associated with engaging with nature. First, the data suggested that volunteers who engaged in TCV’s environmental volunteering activities for more than 6 months displayed a medium or high level of positive wellbeing. This is something that has been found in similar studies and seems to support the growing evidence that nature engagement can increase people’s positive moods and overall wellbeing (15-16).
Also of interest were the factors associated with volunteers’ wellbeing and how this changed over time. For instance, when volunteers started they noticed an improvement in their ability to ‘think clearly’, ‘make up own mind’ and ‘feel optimistic about the future’. Looking back over my own experience of being a TCV volunteer, this is something with which I can personally identify. Some suggest that this ability to think more clearly may relate to a reduced level of cognitive load that we experience in natural settings, compared to busier urbanised environments. An example study I have come across looks into the practice of ‘forest bathing’, a Japanese practice which encourages people to connect with nature through our senses and to let go of the wider world around us. As the study shows, being away from the city and spending time in the forest enable people to experience more positive moods (11).
After six months of engaging in environmental volunteering activities, volunteers began to feel increasingly more ‘useful’ and felt ‘closer to other people’. Again, reflecting on my own time as a TCV volunteer, I can identify with these two things and often felt part of a small community of friends who were working together to improve the wildlife in our local area. When I later spoke to some of the long-term volunteers as part of my studies, they commented on how they enjoyed meeting up with the friends they had made while volunteering. Their motivations for continuing ranged from wanting to feel useful again since they retired, to wanting to make new friends. A similar change has been noted in an article by Asah and Blahna, which found that social connections seemed to motivate people to continue to engage with environmental volunteering activities more than the environmental issues that initially inspired them to become an environmental volunteer (22).
Finally, volunteers also noted a slight increase in the amount of physical activity they engaged in each week after volunteering for six months or more. For example, when volunteers first started at TCV, they tended to be active for three days or less in the week. After six months, volunteers found they were physically active for four days per week. Such increase in physical activity has been found in similar studies (13). Whether this increase stems from volunteers’ growth in fitness levels, or from greater motivation to increase the amount of physical activity they engage in per week, this is an indicator that engaging in environmental volunteering activities does present health benefits.
Outcomes and recommendations
My studies’ key findings add further weight to existing research and our efforts to understand if environmental volunteering activities promote health benefits over time. However, there is still a way to go in this field. From my on-going discussions some of the leading experts in the field, as well as current research, the following questions still remain unanswered:
Do all environmental volunteering activities generate the same types of health benefits?
Are there other factors causing or promoting certain health benefits, e.g. social connections?
Does the type of natural environment affect the impact on our mental wellbeing, e.g. forests versus lakes?
Can nature-based activities be used in addition to other forms of medical prescriptions? And if so, what would the financial implications be both to the UK healthcare system and to environmental organizations?
In answering these questions we would be able to understand the true benefits of engaging in nature-based activities like environmental volunteering, and whether they could be used as an additional form of eco-health prescription.
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Valentine Seymour recently completed her PhD at University College London where she explored the health-related impacts associated with environmental volunteering activities.
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