Can taking part in activities that enhance the physical environment improve your physical and mental health?
There is growing research and policy interest in the potential for using the natural environment to enhance human health and well-being. It is thought that contact with the natural environment has a positive impact on health and well-being. Outdoor environmental enhancement and conservation activities include activities such as unpaid litter picking, tree planting, or path maintenance. It is thought that these offer opportunities for physical activity alongside greater connectedness with local environments, enhanced social connections within communities, and improved self-esteem, which may, in turn, further improve well-being for the individual.
A team of Cochrane authors based in the United Kingdom worked with Cochrane Public Health to assess the health and well-being impacts on adults following participation in environmental enhancement and conservation activities. Participants were adult volunteers or were referred by a healthcare professional.
The review includes 19 studies based on numerical data (quantitative) and text from interviews (qualitative) and data from 3,603 participants. They came from the UK, US, Canada, and Australia.
The majority of quantitative studies reported no effect on health and well-being. There was limited evidence that participation had positive effects on self-reported health, quality of life, and physical activity levels. Some also reported increased mental fatigue and greater feelings of anxiety.
The qualitative studies illustrate the experiences of people taking part, and their perceptions of the benefits. People reported feeling better. They liked the opportunity for increased social contact, especially if they had been socially isolated through, for example, mental ill-health. They also valued a sense of achievement, being in nature, and provision of a daily structure.
“Research into this area is not very robust and quality of the design and reporting is low, therefore we cannot draw any definite conclusions about any positive or negative effects. However, participants perceived that there was a benefit,” said Kerryn Husk, the lead author of the Cochrane Review. “We were able to develop a conceptual framework that illustrates the range of interlinked mechanisms through which people believe they potentially achieved health and well-bring benefits. We hope this will help future research on this this topic.”