David Suzuki: How Nature Benefits Human Health
If a home is not cleaned and cared for, it will become rundown and less habitable or even unlivable. It’s no different with our broader surroundings, from the immediate environment to the entire planet.
If we disconnect from the natural world, we become disconnected from who we are—to the detriment of our health and the health of the ecosystems on which our well-being and survival depend.
Adding 10 or more trees to a city block offered benefits to individuals equivalent to earning $10,000 more a year, moving to a neighborhood with $10,000 higher median income or being seven years younger. Photo credit: Shutterstock
Understanding that we’re part of nature and acting on that understanding makes us healthier and happier and encourages us to care for the natural systems around us. A growing body of science confirms this, including two recent studies that explore the ways nature benefits human health.
A Toronto-based study, published in Nature and co-authored by a team including University of Chicago psychologists Omid Kardan and Marc Berman and David Suzuki Foundation scientist Faisal Moola, examined the relationship between urban trees and human health. According to “Neighborhood greenspace and health in a large urban center,” people living in areas with many trees, especially large trees, report feeling healthier than people in areas with fewer trees.
The other study, published in Ecosystem Services and co-authored by scientists from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), reviewed a range of previous research to explore “observed and potential connections among nature, biodiversity, ecosystem services and human health and well-being.” The authors of “Exploring Connections Among Nature, Biodiversity, Ecosystem Services and Human Health and Well-being” concluded, “the signiﬁcance of biodiversity to human welfare is immense.”
According to the Toronto study, adding 10 or more trees to a city block offered benefits to individuals equivalent to earning $10,000 more a year, moving to a neighborhood with $10,000 higher median income or being seven years younger. As well as self-reporting of health and well-being, the study also found reduced rates of heart conditions, cancer, mental health problems and diabetes in areas with more trees.
— Woodsy Owl -official (@WoodsyOwl) August 18, 2015
The NOAA study delved even deeper into specific physical and mental health outcomes, finding that people living in areas with abundant green space live longer and experience lower rates of “anxiety and depression (especially), upper respiratory tract infections, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD), severe intestinal complaints and infectious disease of the intestine” than people deprived of nature.
The researchers concluded that increased exposure to nature “can have positive effects on mental/psychological health, healing, heart rate, concentration, levels of stress, blood pressure, behavior and other health factors.”
They also found that, although evaluating nature according to the services it provides to humans “may lead to a human-centric view of the biosphere,” preserving these ecosystems and natural biodiversity for our own benefit will improve ecosystem health and the natural services other species need to survive and thrive.
As noted in a Toronto Star article, the Toronto research also found that, “within cities, urban tree lines often follow the fault lines of social, economic, political and ecological disparity.” In other words, protecting and increasing green spaces and improving access to them is a social justice as well as a health issue.
This isn’t news to anyone who gets outside regularly. People who spend at least 30 minutes a day in nature for 30 consecutive days as part of the David Suzuki Foundation’s annual 30X30 Nature Challenge report numerous benefits, including improved mood and vitality and a greater interest in the natural world. It’s why the Foundation is launching the Back to School Superhero Challenge on Sept. 21 to encourage kids, families, students and teachers to get outdoors, learn about environmental issues and make a difference.
"We are capable of even greater things, to rediscover our home, to find ways to live in balance with the sacred elements" -David Suzuki
— David Suzuki FDN (@DavidSuzukiFDN) August 26, 2015
Science is giving us a better understanding of the many ways preserving, caring for and restoring natural spaces can improve the lives of humans and other beings—and how connecting with nature increases our desire to protect and reduce our negative impacts on our surroundings.
Earth is our only home. But it’s more than that. We’re a part of the natural systems that make up our planet and its atmosphere and what we do to the Earth, we do to ourselves—as I conveyed in my book The Sacred Balance: Rediscovering Our Place in Nature. It’s our duty to care for our immediate environment and all of the planet. Doing so will make us healthier and happier.
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It's going to be back-to-school time soon, but will children go into the classrooms?
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) thinks so, but only as long as safety measures are in place.
Keeping Schools Safe<p>What will safer schools look like?</p><p>In a <a href="https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2766822" target="_blank">JAMA article</a> published last month, <a href="https://www.jhsph.edu/faculty/directory/profile/1781/joshua-m-sharfstein" target="_blank">Dr. Joshua Sharfstein</a>, a pediatrician and professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, outlined suggestions — many of which are similar to AAP's.</p><p>Remote learning protocols must stay in place, especially as some schools stagger home and in-building learning. If another shutdown needs to occur, children will rely on distance learning completely, so it must be easy to switch to, he said.</p><p>He suggested giving parents a daily checklist to document their child's health. Kids should be screened quickly on arrival and be given hygiene supplies. Maintenance staff should use appropriate PPE and have regular cleaning schedules. A notification system should be in place if a case is identified, Sharfstein recommended.</p><p><a href="https://www.albany.edu/rockefeller/faculty/erika-martin" target="_blank">Erika Martin</a>, PhD, an associate professor of public administration and policy at University at Albany, said nutrition assistance and health services should be included. She called for tutoring programs with virtual options as well as technology access.</p>
Supporting Staff<p>Teachers and staff will be affected by safeguarding measures, noted <a href="https://directory.sph.umn.edu/bio/sph-a-z/rachel-widome" target="_blank">Rachel Widome</a>, PhD, an associate professor of epidemiology and community health at University of Minnesota.</p><p>"In order for all of the in-school precautions to work well, we'll be asking a lot of teachers and staff," Widome told Healthline. In addition to their usual workload, they'll now be asked to monitor mask-wearing, ensure children are keeping distance, and be aware of any symptoms.</p><p>Along with Sharfstein, Widome called for an increase in financial support. More employees will likely be required so teachers and staff members can keep up with the added demands.</p>
Should Kids Go Back?<p>While these guidelines may help get some schools to reopen, many people don't think children should go back to school over fears they could contract the disease and spread it to other vulnerable family members like grandparents, infant siblings, or their parents.</p><p>In a <a href="https://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2020/07/08/peds.2020-004879" target="_blank">Pediatrics</a> commentary, <a href="https://www.md.com/doctor/william-raszka-md" target="_blank">Dr. William V. Raszka, Jr.</a>, an infectious disease specialist at The University of Vermont Medical Center, argued that schools should open because school-aged children are far less important drivers of COVID-19 than adults.</p><p>But he says the risk and benefit is not equal among all students ages 5 to 18.</p><p>"Elementary schools are arguably higher priority for face-to-face schooling, since younger children are at lower risk for infection and transmission, and since parental supervision of younger children's distance learning may be particularly challenging," added Sorensen, who penned a <a href="https://jamanetwork.com/channels/health-forum/fullarticle/2767411" target="_blank">June article in JAMA</a> with reopening tips. "That means middle and high schools are more likely to emphasize distance learning."</p><p>Specific student populations, such as special education students and students with disabilities, would also benefit greatly from more time spent in face-to-face environments, Sorensen said.</p>
What Parents Can Do<p>Parents should ask for and receive frequent updates from schools about plans for the fall. They should also be informed about plans if and when COVID infections are identified, Sharfstein said.</p><p>"I'd like to see parents investing now, during the summer, in doing things that can slow and stop the spread of the virus in their communities," Widome said.</p><p>"Now is a good time for kids to practice wearing masks and get used to them as they may be wearing them for longer stretches if school starts up in person," Widome suggested.</p><p>She recommends parents try different mask designs and materials to see what children are more comfortable wearing.</p><p>"If you are using cloth face coverings, it's good to have extras on hand," Widome added.</p><p>Parents should model healthy behavior at home and while out in public — another thing that could affect how well children adapt to reopening practices, Sorensen said.</p><p>"Children may want to know more about face coverings," added <a href="https://www.linkedin.com/in/leescott/" target="_blank">Lee Scott</a>, chairwoman of the Educational Advisory Board at <a href="https://www.goddardschool.com/" target="_blank">The Goddard School</a>. "Dramatic play, such as creating or wearing a face covering, may help some children adjust to this concept." Schools can also show children photos of what faculty members look like in their masks so the students are familiar with that appearance.</p><p>Johns Hopkins University recently released its eSchool+ Initiative, a slew of resources surrounding education during the pandemic. These include a <a href="https://equityschoolplus.jhu.edu/reopening-checklist/" target="_blank">checklist for administrators</a>, report on <a href="https://equityschoolplus.jhu.edu/ethics-of-reopening/" target="_blank">ethical considerations</a>, and a tracker of <a href="https://equityschoolplus.jhu.edu/reopening-policy-tracker/" target="_blank">state and local reopening plans</a>.</p>
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