Does nature make you healthier? New academic programme to find out

Summary

A new academic chair at UAntwerp will teach doctors how to treat psychological and physical problems with nature-related activities

Forest bathing

A walk in the woods can do wonders for stress, and school playgrounds with green space are healthier for children. Such links between nature and health are commonly accepted, but a new academic chair at the University of Antwerp (UAntwerp) will take a purely scientific approach to the subject for the next three years.

The idea is to provide evidence for the link between nature and wellbeing, so that, for example, doctors are more inclined to advise nature-related activities to prevent or treat health problems.

At the beginning of October, 170 experts, mainly from the health and nature sectors in Flanders, assembled at Antwerp Zoo to discuss how to apply the links between nature on health in primary care. The network event served as the kick-off of the Care and the Natural Living Environment academic chair and the finish of the project Green Light, both collaborations between UAntwerp and Antwerp province – with the province providing financial support.

“The goal of Green Light was to explore to what extent insights about the links between nature and  health are already integrated in primary health care and how to achieve more progress,” explains UAntwerp researcher Hans Keune, co-ordinator of both projects. “There certainly is much potential, but doctors need more concrete proof and practical tools to work with this knowledge.”

Diverse benefits

The health benefits of nature are very diverse. There are strong indications of the positive impacts of recreation in nature, of the calm atmosphere and clean air of natural environments and of medicinal plants on our physical and mental wellbeing. Research also suggests that physical contact with nature is crucial in the development of children’s immune systems.

UAntwerp and the Flemish Research Institute for Nature and Forest carried out a survey among 13,000 people in Flanders, and about 80% said they felt more fit, more positive, relaxed or happier after spending time in nature.

Apart from the benefits, the chair will also investigate health risks associated with the outdoors, such as allergies and infectious diseases – for example Lyme disease, which is caused by a bacteria spread by ticks.

We need to professionalise this sector through regulation and quality certificates

- Researcher Hans Keune

Care and the Natural Living Environment will set up concrete research projects in collaboration with experts from different sectors. The scientists will, for instance, monitor the health impacts of nature at care farms, “green” playgrounds and rest homes.

The chair will also help examine the role of physical education coaches and the government’s Moving on Referral project in encouraging GPs and company doctors to recommend coaches or to stress the health benefits of activities in the outdoors.

There are already “nature coaches” in Flanders, who work with clients to use contact with nature to help them deal with burn-out, emotional problems or difficult decisions. “But we need to professionalise this sector through regulation and quality certificates so that this service can be officially prescribed and, hopefully, refunded,” says Keune. “We will now first map the methods of nature coaches.”

Investing in wellbeing


Another goal is to help doctors give patients advice adjusted to their specific needs. Keune (pictured above) envisions the creation of tools such as nature-health guidelines but also training initiatives, set up in collaboration with umbrella organisations like Flemish GP association Domus Medica.

But there will also be trainings organised for other stakeholders, such as nature guides and policymakers. “Building bridges between sectors will be an important task of the chair as well,” says Keune. “We are considering the development of a website to distribute scientific insights and information about events to all the different stakeholders.”

Governmental bodies will be an important target group, in order to ensure smart urban planning policy decisions when it comes to green spaces and the use of natural elements.

Rik Röttger, Antwerp province’s nature and environment deputy, came out in support of the project in a press statement: “The province invests in nature and research about nature and health because in so doing, we invest in the wellbeing of our population. Nature makes us healthy, happier and maybe even smarter.”

Photos: Courtesy Westtour (top), courtesy Provincie Antwerp (above)