Two trips a week to park has big health benefits, study finds

Expert says other research shows how green spaces can help combat obesity and stress

Phoenix Park in Dublin. ESRI researchers have  surveyed 1,050 adults between February and May last year on how often they visited green spaces. Photograph: Pat Langan

Phoenix Park in Dublin. ESRI researchers have surveyed 1,050 adults between February and May last year on how often they visited green spaces. Photograph: Pat Langan

 

A trip to the local park twice a week could pay dividends in personal health terms, particularly mental wellbeing, new research has found.

A detailed study on how people in Ireland interact with green space has also shed light on what kind of parks encourage greater use.

The Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) was commissioned by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to evaluate not just the health benefits of such areas but how people might be incentivised to make the most of them.

The Irish project surveyed 1,050 adults between February and May last year on how often they visited green spaces. They were then asked to rate their own physical and mental health and a correlation was drawn between two sets of complex data.

While two trips a week was found to have significant health benefits, any increase on that will only fractionally improve the outcome.

‘Mildly active’

“What is important is basically to be mildly active, not to be really, really active, at least in terms of green spaces,” Dr Gianluca Grilli said, adding that park visits were not a substitute for going to the gym.

“The highest improvement on the health indicators that we experienced was the mental wellbeing – it’s good for your let’s say self-assessment of health; how do you actually feel?”

Presenting some initial findings to an ESRI Environment and Health Conference on Friday, Dr Grilli noted several pieces of research had already shown how green spaces can help combat obesity and stress, and improve life satisfaction.

Design choices

Respondents were also invited to indicate what type of green space or park to which they would be more likely to travel. They were given six general design choices, while one of four variations of questionnaires was selected randomly for each respondent.

The researchers found an average view of the ideal facility included water features, a variety of waking tracks, particularly of medium size, and facilities such as coffee shops. Conversely, there was an aversion to trees – possibly a reflection of safety concerns.

By 2050, the UN estimates about one-third of the world’s population will live in urban areas, a development that brings renewed focus on how society uses open space.

In a separate presentation, Prof Enda Murphy of the school of architecture, planning and environmental policy at UCD addressed the issue of noise pollution – Ireland’s “forgotten pollutant”, most commonly the result of transport infrastructure.

According to a World Health Organisation study in 2011, noise pollution carries a “disease burden” second only to air pollution.

Noise-health relationships

“In the EU, problems with noise are often raised at the highest level together with global warming in public surveys which might surprise a lot of people,” said Prof Murphy.

“And I think the surprise comes partly from the fact that in Ireland the awareness around noise-health relationships in particular is much worse than it is in most other European countries.”

He said despite their growing popularity electric vehicles would not significantly reduce transport noise as it is caused more by vehicle motion than by engines.