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How free access to nature in Hampshire can improve health

PUBLISHED: 15:00 06 May 2015

New Forest Ponies Under Rainbow (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

New Forest Ponies Under Rainbow (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

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Barely a week goes by when we don't hear on the news about the incredible strain our health system is under. Whether it's overstretched A&E departments, or older people in our communities becoming frailer - it's clear something needs to change for the NHS to cope.

There are some simple investments we can make to reduce the burden on the NHS. Nature and green spaces have a huge role to play in helping people become healthier, happier and more active in the future. For example, physical inactivity affects some two thirds of the UK’s population - more than people with obesity, alcohol misuse and smoking combined. The impacts on the economy are massive, with the bill running to £20 billion a year through treatment costs and lost work days through sickness. However, research has found that living near to and being able to access green space means people are more active, and are far less likely to experience diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, hypertension and general bad health.

One in four adults will experience a mental health problem at some point in their lives, made worse by stressful lives and neighbourhoods. Mental ill-health costs more to society than crime. But time and time again we find that contact with nature can help to prevent and even reverse poor health and wellbeing.

Even viewing nature through a window can help people recover from mental fatigue and illness, reduce stress, and improve concentration and mood. Gardens in hospitals and care homes have been found to improve health and wellbeing through increases in relaxation and the ability to cope, reductions in stress and better moods.

Being able to access natural spaces nearby is particularly important for children, who unfortunately are increasingly less engaged in the outdoors. Regular work with nature increases their ability to cope with stressful life events and develop better attention spans.

However these health problems aren’t evenly spread across Hampshire. People from less well-off backgrounds tend to live in areas without good quality green and open spaces, and suffer most from the poor health that comes with it. The same goes for minority communities and older people, whose access to green spaces and health tend to be worse.

It seems obvious to say that nature makes us happier – who doesn’t love going out for a picnic or sitting on the beach for an afternoon? However it’s far more important than that – nature actually makes us physically and mentally healthier.

That’s the reason why we at Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust are calling on politicians to consider introducing new laws to provide and protect green spaces for all of us to enjoy – an Act for Nature. The reality is that current laws don’t work for either nature or people, and it’s only through long term thinking that we’ll be able to solve some of our major problems.

Our proposals challenge government, councils and developers to work with communities to introduce new green spaces into existing towns and protect green space that already exist. It’s about time that the benefits people get from a healthy natural environment are taken seriously.

If you want to find out more about HIWWT’s call for an Act for Nature visit www.wildlifetrusts.org/naturewellbeingact

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