February 22, 2024

People with lower incomes benefit most from their involvement in the natural environment

Spending regular time in nature is more beneficial to the mental well-being of poorer people than richer people

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Nature can help reduce income-related health inequalities, according to a new study from the University of Vienna and the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences Vienna. The study found a strong correlation between weekly contact with nature and improved mental and physical well-being in people with lower incomes than in people with higher incomes. This benefit was only seen among people who actively visited or engaged with nature, and not among those who merely lived in or near green spaces. So this research has actually shown that doing something – bird watching, gardening, photography, walking, playing Frisbee, cycling or some other activity – was more important than where someone lived.

This makes sense, if you think about it. People trying to live on a low income are under a lot of stress, which means they are at high risk of developing or suffering from mental health problems such as depression or anxiety. But as this study shows, one way to improve mental health is to escape your worries by being in nature. Such ‘ecotherapy’ is associated with lower stress levels, better immune function, improved cognitive performance, better sleep, higher self-esteem and greater life satisfaction.

We have long known that there are physical health benefits, but the mental health benefits associated with lower socio-economic status have been mixed: for example, one study has shown that potential access to and use of public parks and private parks gardens are differentially associated with mental health outcomes across different groups (e.g., by age and gender). So it was speculated that this is related to the different types of activities associated with different local environments (ref).

Interestingly, another study found that green space measures play a role quantity did not change the effect of socio-economic variables on depression and anxiety scores, but measures of green space did quality did (reference). What determines the quality of a green or blue space? In short: it must be attractive. There is increasing evidence that attractiveness increases recreational contact with nature, and that this may be more important for mental health and well-being than the greenness/blueness of the neighborhood necessarily (reference). And furthermore, the species The number of natural spaces that appeal to different people can also vary, as I shared with you a few months ago (more here).

To conduct this study, the researchers surveyed 2,300 individuals across Austria who were representative of age, gender and region. The team’s findings suggest that while people with higher incomes generally reported higher well-being regardless of how often they visited nature, mental well-being among the poorest in society was much better among those who visited nature often. In fact, poorer individuals who visited city parks or other natural environments several times a week had levels of well-being almost as high as those of the wealthiest respondents. This pattern was clearly visible both for Austria as a whole and for individuals living in urban Vienna.

“What the results show is that the well-being benefits of visiting nature at least once a week throughout the year are comparable to those of an increase of 1,000 euros in income per year,” says lead author Leonie Fian, a PhD student . studying environmentally friendly behavior and the effects of exposure to nature as part of the Environmental Psychology Research Group at the University of Vienna.

‘Nature’ in this study included a variety of green spaces such as parks, woodlands or forests, and blue spaces such as rivers, wetlands, beaches or canals. This is especially important for city dwellers because it means the mental health benefits of nature can be made available to almost everyone, regardless of where we live or how much we earn.

“Especially for people with lower incomes, information about attractive natural recreational areas nearby and their accessibility by public transport plays an important role,” says co-author Arne Arnberger, associate professor at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences Vienna. Professor Arnberger’s research specialty focuses on the recreational use of urban forests.

Interestingly, nature-based improvements in mental health were not observed among people with higher incomes.

Unfortunately, unequal access to nature for people from lower socio-economic groups can exacerbate health inequalities. For this reason, support must be provided so that everyone, especially those living in urban areas, has access to green and blue spaces.

“They should therefore also be easily accessible by public transport at weekends,” Professor Arnberger suggests.

This discovery has profound implications for public health strategies, especially in addressing the socio-economic mental health divide in large urban areas. From a public health perspective, it is therefore important to create greener neighborhoods and natural recreational areas, but also to ensure that these spaces are accessible so that they can be used, especially by socio-economically disadvantaged groups.

Source:

Leonie Fian, Mathew P. White, Arne Arnberger, Thomas Thaler, Anja Heske and Sabine Pahl (2024). Nature visits, but not residential green spaces, are associated with reduced income-related inequalities in subjective well-being, Health and place 85:103175 | doi:10.1016/j.healthplace.2024.103175


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