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Human Health and Nature


Links between human health and the environment have long been discussed; however, much of the attention until recently has been on the negative impacts of certain environmental conditions on human health.  Examples have included connections between poor air quality and asthma, drinking water issues, and carcinogenic toxins in soil and groundwater. For various socio-economic and other disparity reasons, these connections have launched the field of environmental justice.

In more recent years, research and general discourse has turned to the positive impacts of the environment on human health.  The positive impact of spending time outdoors in nature on human physical and mental health has received attention in both scholarly journals (e.g., White et al., 2019, in the journal Nature and South et al., 2018, in Journal of the American Medication Association) and the popular media (e.g., Time magazine article from February 2019).  People who spend more time outdoors have lower levels of stress hormones, healthier blood chemistry, and better mental health.  Crime is lower and reported “happiness” is higher in urban areas with green spaces than in settings without green spaces.

Impact of COVID on Popularity of Spending Time Outdoors

With the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020-2022(+), this positive link gained even more attention.  Malls, restaurants, and other indoor venues were closed, forcing people outdoors to recreate.  Visitation at parks skyrocketed, number of outdoor recreational licenses (e.g., fishing, hunting) soared, and even the sale of recreational vehicles such as boats increased.  Those who did have “secret” walks in the woods found that these previously isolated spots were no longer so secret.

The fact that COVID was so devastating to populations with co-morbidities emphasized the need to maintain a higher baseline of general health.  Mortality rate of COVID has been linked to factors such as obesity, diabetes, and other general health issues.  Since we know people who spend time outdoors are healthier, then logically, people who spend more time outdoors in healthy natural systems should be able to fend off pathogens better.

Supporting Time Outdoors as Preventative Care

 In our society, the public health community has long supported various wellness campaigns to improve general baseline health.  Examples include anti-smoking behavior change campaigns and incentives by health insurance companies to join (indoor) fitness centers.  Spending time outdoors among healthy natural resources should be considered as a public health campaign as well.  Efforts on this front are starting: Blue Cross Blue Shield North Carolina, the state of North Carolina, and a local nonprofit illustrated this link with their partnership GO! NC Health Challenge, which encourages hiking to improve health.

This positive connection between human health and nature was recognized by some in the medical community prior to COVID-19, such as the ParksRx program in Washington D.C., in which doctors prescribe time in parks to patients; by the construction of healing gardens in hospitals nationwide; and by outdoor time as part of anti-obesity programs for children.

Economic benefits support these activities: Healthy workers take 27% fewer sick days, are more productive at work when they do work, and cost their employers less, contributing more to their employers’ bottom lines. Healthier populations save billions in health care costs.

Chesapeake Bay Trust Work to Date

The Chesapeake Bay Trust has long aimed to support projects to knock down existing barriers to spending more time outdoors in nature to improve health.  Three such barriers are 1) awareness of the value of outdoor time to human health, 2) access and proximity to outdoor spaces, and 3) condition of outdoor public access sites.   Examples of projects we have funded include:

  • green space that also serves a stormwater and pollinator habitat function at MedStar Harbor Hospital in Baltimore for both staff health and patient rehabilitation;
  • a rain garden and outdoor space at Channel Marker’s Regional Wellness Center, a mental health services organization on the Eastern Shore;
  • a Docs in the Park project with the Chesapeake Center for Youth Development;
  • an adaptive cycling program for wounded/disabled veterans in Patapsco Valley State Park;
  • a trail riding program at Queen Anne’s County’s Talisman Therapeutic Riding for veterans and a Veteran’s Victory Garden;
  • a community clean up and native planting project at future greenspace in a West Baltimore neighborhood with Druid Heights Community Development Corporation and the University of Maryland Medical Center;  and
  • The Audubon Naturalist Society for the “Service and Healing: Bringing Veterans and Nature Together” program along a wheelchair-accessible, streamside nature trail.


Fostering a Stronger Connection Between Health Advocates and the Environmental Community

The time is ripe for a stronger connection between the human health and environmental sectors.   The Trust supports improving human health by encouraging and increasing access to healthy outdoor green spaces. Because people in underserved communities have limited access to healthy outdoor spaces, we maintain that this positive connection between health and nature is also an environmental justice issue.

As long as humans have access to outdoor venues in which to interact with nature; as long as these outdoor venues have healthy air, water, and soil; and as long as humans are encouraged to use them, we will have healthier human populations supported by healthy natural resources.

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