The anti-ageing power of the great outdoors

by Nicky Pellegrino / 07 May, 2017
Walking in Westland National Park. Photo/Getty Images

Walking in Westland National Park. Photo/Getty Images

Even 20 minutes a day spent in nature can lower blood pressure and increase feelings of vitality.

Over the past four years, residents in the Auckland suburb of Mangere have become part of an ambitious research project. Future Streets has changed the neighbourhood of Mangere Central to make it safer and more inviting. Footpaths have been widened; cycle lanes, artworks and attractive planting have been added; and the street lighting has been improved. Meanwhile, in the control area of Mangere East, people continue to live with the roads they have always had.

Transport infrastructure may be at the heart of this research, but it is about more than helping Aucklanders get from A to B more easily.

“We’re also interested in the interaction between the environment and people’s health,” says project leader Hamish Mackie. “There is a growing feeling that street design doesn’t serve us well. It works as a network to get lots of cars around the place. But it doesn’t give us access to public transport or allow us to walk or cycle safely.”

Future Streets’ Hamish Mackie.

With the construction phase completed, the project is now focused on finding out how people are using these revamped roads. Has the change encouraged more physical activity and more opportunity for everyday social interactions, for instance? And how do the residents feel about their neighbourhood now? Safer? More likely to get out and about? More socially connected?

Mackie hopes the resulting data will influence the way we invest in our urban environments. “At the moment, the main thing we value is travel time and we don’t consider health very well,” he says.

Where you live, how safe you feel there, how much you get out to exercise and connect with others, even how your neighbourhood looks have all been found to influence telomere length.

People have a cellular response to neighbourhoods with low social cohesion and high crime. Children who live in ugly urban places filled with litter and broken glass have shorter telomeres. And greenery makes a difference: in a 2009 study of elderly men in Hong Kong, those in built-up downtown Kowloon had shorter telomeres than those who lived in the lusher New Territories. Even when people are economically deprived, living surrounded by plants and trees significantly reduces their chances of dying early from any cause.

Our cells love nature. “And that’s not just woolly intuition, it’s been backed up by the latest science,” says US author Florence Williams.

Mangere Central is being transformed. Photo/Boffa Miskell

For her new book The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative, Williams investigated the health benefits of the great outdoors and discovered that scientists are using all sorts of new tools to measure its impact on our bodies, from portable EEG machines to smartphones.

Researchers from the Finnish Forest Institute have found that even 20 minutes a day spent in nature can lower blood pressure and increase feelings of vitality. And in Japan, where shinrin-yoku – or forest “bathing” – is part of the national public health programme, people are encouraged to get out onto one of 48 designated therapy trails. A 2009 study at Tokyo’s Nippon Medical School showed that a weekend forest visit boosts immune function by increasing the activity of natural killer cells for a month afterwards.

Being out in the woods has also been found to promote lower concentrations of the stress hormone cortisol, lower pulse rate and blood pressure and result in a healthier nervous system.

“I observed one study in Japan where researchers took people out for 15- or 20-minute walks and then compared them with a group walking round a city,” says Williams. “Only the group in the forest experienced these greater effects of well-being.”

US author Florence Williams.

For benefits at a cellular level, it’s not good enough to simply be in nature – you have to pay attention to it.

“The science shows we get the biggest boost if we can be mindful in that space,” says Williams, “so turning off our phones, taking out our headphones and really noticing the birdsong and smells, the patterns of nature and colours. If we can force ourselves to be more present, that seems to shortcut the boost.”

Part of the theory is that trees give out aerosols of anti-bacterial agents. Even if you can’t get out into the woods, there is benefit to be found in brief moments of nature – sitting in a park to eat your lunch, for instance, Williams says.

The problem is that modern life is increasingly spent indoors. Children, especially, are suffering from what has been dubbed “nature-deficit disorder” from spending too much time in front of a screen and too little exploring in natural settings. Even Williams, who is a contributing editor to Outside magazine, was shocked to discover how much time she was spending between four walls.

“I participated in a big data study for the University of Exeter, where I had my cellphone ping me two times a day for a year to document where I was and how I felt,” she says. “I was caught outside for just 7% of the time – the American average is 5% – which is appallingly low.”

Since then, Williams, who lives in Washington, DC, has been making sure she walks in a park for 30 minutes a day. “I take a similar route and look out for the birds and how the trees change with the seasons. I’ve made my friends do it as well and they’ve told me it’s made a big difference to their lives. A couple have gone off their anti-depressant and anxiety medications.”

New York’s High Line park, built on a disused railway. Photo/Getty Images

New York’s High Line park, built on a disused railway. Photo/Getty Images

In New Zealand, we may be blessed when it comes to natural environments, but our cities, designed with ease of movement by car in mind, aren’t as healthy as they could be. Hence the Future Streets programme, and the hope it will provide some sort of blueprint for future urban planning. It’s not just about getting people outdoors to exercise, but providing opportunities for social connection. This, too, is believed to affect telomeres – a 2014 study of African parrots showed that those caged alone had faster telomere shortening than those kept with a mate.

The Christchurch rebuild has provided an opportunity to experiment with ways to draw people out of their homes and into the community to linger and mingle, with gap fillers such as the Dance-O-Mat project (a coin-operated dance floor), outdoor table tennis and board games, and permanent developments such as the Margaret Mahy playground.

Increasing the health of a neighbourhood may seem like something individuals have little control over, but telomere experts Elissa Epel and Elizabeth Blackburn believe small changes do add up. They point to rundown Seattle areas where residents created artworks on boarded-up shop windows and Epel’s own San Francisco neighbours, who have created “parklets” with benches and greenery on bare pavements.

Simply acknowledging the people you pass on the street may have a micro-benefit.

“Each day, we interact with strangers or acquaintances and we can either feel separate from them or connect with them in a small way that has a positive effect,” they say. “Give people an ‘air gaze’ [looking past the face, with no eye contact]’ and they will tend to feel more disconnected from others. Give them a smile and eye contact and they feel more connected.”

The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative, by Florence Williams (WW Norton & Company, $43.99)

This excerpt was first published in 'Elixirs of Youth', an article on anti-ageing schemes, which was first published in the May 6, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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