Over the last 20 years, researchers have conducted studies from all over the globe that explore how the places we live, work and play influence our health and well-being. Healthy Messages represent a quick overview of some of the leading points that have emerged from this extensive field of investigation. Below is a ‘deeper dive’ into some of the research behind the messages.

Each Healthy Message has a Key Point with a short summary on each of three leading research studies, a link to the article or report itself and a Take Away. There is much more to explore. These messages give a representative sample of the extensive amount of work that is available to download at no cost, and some of the areas of healthy impacts most relevant to daily life.

Get Healthy

Key Points:
Physical activity is important to health; access to parks increases the likelihood that we will engage in physical activity.
Does the Built Environment Influence Physical Activity? Examining the Evidence, 2005

Committee on Physical Activity, Health, Transportation and Land Use, Transportation Research Board and Institute of Medicine of the National Academies: Susan Hanson, Chair, Bobbie A. Berkowitz, Vice Chair, Barbara E. Ainsworth, Steven N. Blair, Robert B. Cervero, Donald D. T. Chen, Randall Crane, Mindy Thompson Fullilove, Genevieve Giuliano, T. Keith Lawton, Patricia L. Mokhtarian, Kenneth E. Powell, Jane C. Stutts, Richard P. Voith

The Institute of Medicine and Transportation Research Board of the National Academies developed this report in 2005 to review all the available studies to understand the relationship of physical activity to the built environment—sidewalks, roads, buildings, neighborhoods and regions. They found that greater access to parks, trails and green spaces can promote physical activity. The result of the committee work is lengthy, but this is an important foundational report.

Greater access to parks, trails and green spaces can promote physical activity.

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Physical activity and cardiovascular disease: How much is enough?, 2009

Mercedes Carnethon

Mercedes Carnethon, a researcher at Northwestern University, reviewed the literature on the relationship of physical activity to heart health. She reported that one clinical study showed as little as 10 minutes a day of physical activity increased participants’ physical fitness. Even greater health benefits were found with higher levels of physical activity. She concludes that, with a few cautions, there is enough evidence to recommend to healthy adults that any activity such as walking can improve heart health and that more activity is better. However, always check with your doctor before starting any exercise program.

A 10-minute walk can improve your health; locate your nearest park for a green walk.

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Effect of a park-based after-school program on participant obesity-related health outcomes, 2015

Sarah E. Messiah, Allison Diego, Jack Kardys, Kevin Kirwin, Eric Hanson, Renae Nottage, Shawn Ramirez, Kristopher L. Arheart

A collaborative research team from the University of Miami and Miami-Dade Department of Parks, Recreation, and Open Spaces (MDPROS) assessed the health of children participating in the MDPROS after-school program Fit-2-Play for children ages 6-14. The program integrates physical activity, health and wellness programs. The authors reported that overweight participants decreased Body Mass Index scores, while normal weight children maintained a healthy weight, and the entire group improved levels of fitness as well enhanced knowledge of health and wellness.

Park’s after-school programs can enhance children’s health as well their awareness of healthy choices.

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Feel Better

Key Points: Access to parks and green spaces is associated with better mental health.
Exposure to neighborhood green space and mental health: Evidence from the Survey of the Health of Wisconsin, 2014

Kirsten M. M. Beyer, Andrea Kaltenbach, Aniko Szabo, Sandra Bogar, F. Javier Nieto, Kristen M. Malecki
Researchers from the Medical College of Wisconsin and University of Wisconsin reported more green space in a neighborhood can enhance mental health. The authors found that, among a large group of Wisconsin residents whom they surveyed, living near a green space, such as a park, was linked to lower levels of depression, anxiety and stress. These mental health benefits were found even after adjusting for other factors such as length of residence in the neighborhood and whether individuals lived in an urban or rural area. The authors suggest that living near green may promote physical activity or reduce stress, both of which may make people feel better. 
Neighborhood green spaces can provide significant mental health benefits.

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Would You Be Happier Living in a Green Urban Area? A Fixed-Effects Analysis of Panel Data, 2013

Mathew P. White, Ian Alcock, Benedict W. Wheeler, and Michael H. Depledge

Researchers from the University of Exeter, in England, examined data on 10,000 people over 18 years to discern relationships between urban green space and well-being. They found that residents who lived in areas with more green space were happier and more satisfied with their lives, compared to those residents living in areas with less green space. These results were found even after adjusting for other factors such as whether individuals were married and the types of homes they lived in. The authors concluded that urban green spaces may promote wellbeing.

The significant “cumulative benefits” of access to parks suggests that urban green spaces are important to both individual and community well-being.

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Happiness is greater in natural environments, 2013

George MacKerron and Susana Mourato

Researchers from the University of Sussex and the London School Economics & Political Science used a smartphone app to collect data from more than 20,000 participants at random moments during their daily activities. With more than 1 million responses, they then associated the responses with GPS locations. Findings showed that participants were happiest when they were outdoors in green areas and natural habitats. The authors note that young professionals may be overrepresented in this sample which was restricted to iPhone users and consider the possibility that perhaps “natural environments provide a particularly strong and enjoyable contrast with the stressful working lives of young professionals.”

Parks and green spaces near work places provide opportunities for moments of happiness and well-being throughout the day.

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Tame Tension

Key Points: Park visits and views can reduce stress levels.
Physiological and psychological responses of young males during spring-time walks in urban parks, 2014

Chorong Song, Harumi Ikei, Miho Igarashi, Masayuki Miwa, Michiko Takagaki and Yoshifumi Miyazak

A team of researchers from Chiba University in Japan found that volunteers who walked for 15 minutes in an urban park had a lower heart rate, and were less tense and tired, than the same volunteers after walking along a busy city street. They determined that as little as a 15-minute walk in a park can make a difference in both mood and heart rate. Participants reported greater “vigor” after walking in an urban park. Researchers suggest that even small urban park can provide health benefits.

A short walk in a park can improve both mental and heart health.

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More green space is linked to less stress in deprived communities: Evidence from salivary cortisol patterns, 2012

Catherine Ward Thompson, Jenny Roe, Peter Aspinall, Richard Mitchell, Angela Clow, David Miller

A team of researchers from the University of Edinburgh and the University of Glasgow in Scotland found that residents of an urban area in Scotland with more green space in their neighborhood, reported lower stress levels than residents who had little green space. In addition, the researchers measured residents’ cortisol, a hormone that the body produces in response to stress, at different times during the day. Those participants who lived in an area with ample green space showed a pattern of daily cortisol variation that was consistent with low stress levels overall. Residents of greener areas also reported more physical activity than residents of less green areas. The authors conclude that access to green or parks may reduce stress levels, possibly by increasing the number of ways in which residents can be active.

Neighborhood green space can lower stress levels.

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Green space as a buffer between stressful events and health, 2010

Agnes E. Van den Berg, Jolanda Maas, Robert A. Verheij, Peter P. Groenewegen

Researchers from the Netherlands analyzed health data from 4529 Dutch residents over a two-year period to discern whether green spaces might help buffer the negative impact of “stressful life events.” They found that residents who lived near green space such as parks were less likely to get sick in response to stressful life events. The authors suggest that we seek out nature in times of stress, and that people living in greener areas may have more ways to relax and restore after stressful events, thereby benefiting their health.

The presence of green space may reduce the negative impacts of stressful events.

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Get Smart

Key Points: Access to parks and views of parks green spaces is associated with better academic performance and mental concentration.
Linking student performance in Massachusetts elementary schools with the “greenness” of school surroundings using remote sensing, 2014

Chih-Da Wu, Eileen McNeely, J. G. Cedeño-Laurent, Wen-Chi Pan, Gary Adamkiewicz, Francesca Dominici, Shih-Chun Candice Lung, Huey-Jen Su, John D. Spengler

Researchers from the National Chiayi University, Harvard School of Public Health, Brown University, Academia Sinica, National Taiwan University, and the College of Medicine at National Cheng Kung, examined levels of greenery and the academic performance of 3rd grade public school students in Massachusetts. The evidence indicated that students exposed to higher levels of greenery had higher Math and English test scores, compared to students at schools in less green areas. These findings were obtained after taking into account other factors that might influence school performance, such as student-teacher ratio, parent income, and urban residency. The results suggest that having higher exposure to greenness may increase academic performance, perhaps due to increased physical activity, time spent outdoors, or reduced stress and air pollution, all of which may lead to better school performance.

Higher levels of greenery at schools can enhance student performance.

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Children with attention deficits concentrate better after a walk in the park, 2009

Andrea Faber Taylor and France E. Kuo

Researchers from the University of Illinois conducted a study in which children, ages 7-12, and diagnosed with Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), were given a guided walk in “a city park, and two other well-kept urban settings.” Researchers measured each child’s concentration after the walk and found that the children showed improved concentration after spending as little as a 20-minute walk in the park. The walks in a city park were associated with an improved ability to learn and remember study material, when compared with the walks in town alone. The benefits of walking in a park were equivalent to those reported for recent formulations of an attention-enhancing drug for ADHD.

A walk in the park can improve concentration.

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Active education: Growing evidence on physical activity and academic performance, 2015

Darla M. Castelli, Elizabeth Glowacki, Jeanne M. Barcelona, Hannah G. Calvert, and Jungyun Hwang

Researchers at the University of Texas in Austin developed this brief report on the current evidence of the benefits of participation in physical activity for children. Children who participate in regular physical activity are able to focus better in the classroom. Just a single session of physical activity can show evidence of subsequent improvement in learning and memory, and can lead to better scores on academic tests.

Active play and physical fitness can enhance learning.

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Healthy Aging

Key Points: Parks help promote the well-being of older adults.
Urban residential environments and senior citizens’ longevity in megacity areas: The importance of walkable green spaces, 2002

Takehito Takano, Keiko Nakamura, Masafumi Watanabe

A research team from Tokyo Medical and Dental University in Japan reported that living near green areas such as parks may extend length of life. They assessed a group of Japanese seniors over a five-year period, and found that seniors who lived near green, public spaces lived longer than seniors who lived further away. These findings were obtained after adjusting for factors such as seniors’ age, income and health at the start of the study. The authors concluded that living in areas in which it is possible to walk to parks and green spaces may promote the health of senior citizens.

Living near walkable green spaces can enhance longevity.

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The Urban Built Environment and Mobility in Older Adults: A Comprehensive Review, 2011

Andrea L. Rosso, Amy H. Auchincloss, and Yvonne L. Michael

Researchers from Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania examined evidence to evaluate whether physical characteristics of neighborhoods can affect seniors’ mobility They focused on walking, because it is a low-cost, low-impact way of keeping active and fit. The authors reported that nearby parks and green spaces can increase opportunities for walking in older adults, and the presence of trails and walking paths increase walking in older residents.

Neighborhood features including parks and green spaces benefit senior health and fitness.

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Growing Smarter, Living Healthier: A Guide to Smart Growth and Active Aging, 2009

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Children’s Health Protection and Environmental Education (1107) The Child and Aging Health Protection Division

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) developed this guide to provide information on “why our choices of where and how to live can have an impact on our health and wellbeing.” This guidebook focuses on the impact of parks to provide opportunities for both social interaction and physical activity through participation in organized as well as individual activities. The doctor-recommended 30 minutes of physical activity per day (at least 3 times per week) can be managed in smaller excursions, including a10-minute walk to a nearby park. Parks also provide senior zones specifically to support strength and flexibility.

Parks help promote seniors’ well-being.

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