Physical activity in nature helps prevent key diseases

Posted on 29th April 2024

Physical activity in natural environments prevents almost 13,000 cases of non-communicable diseases a year in England and saves more than £100m in the costs of ill health to society, new research from the European Centre for Environment and Human Health has found.

Common non-communicable diseases such as heart disease, stroke, and cancer, cause 74% of deaths across the world – figures that are rising in most countries. Low levels of physical inactivity are a key risk factor for several of these diseases.

Published in the journal Environment International, the study focused on how natural environments such as beaches, the countryside, and open spaces in towns and cities might support recreational exercise.

Using representative data from over 47,000 people, the research team estimated how many cases of six non-communicable diseases – major depressive disorder, type 2 diabetes, ischaemic heart disease, ischaemic stroke, colon cancer, and breast cancer – are prevented through nature-based recreational physical activity.

They found that in 2019, 22 million adults in England visited natural environments at least once a week. Based on typical levels of physical activity in these places, this prevented 12,763 cases of non-communicable diseases, and led to annual healthcare savings of £108.7 million.

Study lead, Dr James Grellier, said: “We believe this is the first time an assessment like this has been conducted on a national scale and we’ve almost certainly underestimated the true value of nature-based physical activity in terms of disease prevention. Although we have focused on six of the most common non-communicable diseases, there are several less common diseases that can be prevented by physical activity, including other types of cancer and mental ill health. It’s important to note that our estimates represent annual costs. Since chronic diseases can affect people for many years, the overall value of physical activity at preventing each case is certainly much higher.”

Increasing levels of physical activity is an important strategic goal for public health institutions globally. The World Health Organization recommends that adults aged 18 to 64 should do at least 150 to 300 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic physical activity per week to maintain good health. However, more than a quarter of adults across the world do not meet these recommendations.

Population-representative data from the Monitor of Engagement with the Natural Environment (MENE) survey were used in the analysis.

Dr Grellier concluded: “The healthcare costs of physical inactivity in England are roughly £1 billion per year. For people without the access, desire, or confidence to take part in organised sports or fitness activities, nature-based physical activity is a widely available and informal option. We hope our findings will encourage investment in natural spaces to make it easier for people to be physically active.”

The full paper titled Valuing the health benefits of nature-based recreational physical activity in England is published in Environment International here.

Read news coverage of the study in the i here.

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