City Trees, Nature, and Physical Activity

By Kathleen L. Wolf
Seattle, WA (February 1, 2008)- Research shows that trees and nature are an important element of outdoor environments that support activity. Not only are trees themselves beneficial, but tree stewardship programs can also be beneficial to one’s health. Volunteer stewards of all ages who routinely tend trees or work on urban forestry projects are probably gaining health benefits.


Additionally, recent research shows that the built environment influences behaviors. Certain outdoor elements, such as trees and gardens, generally encourage good choices. Research shows positive relationships between natural environments and psychological or social benefits. Green areas in one’s living environment may reduce air pollution and urban heat island effects, creating more comfortable activity settings.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 65 percent of U.S. adults are overweight. Chronic diseases account for 300,000 premature deaths annually, and contribute to five of the six leading causes of death in the United States. One study showed that residents of neighborhoods with abundant greenspace generally enjoy better general health. This positive link was found to be most apparent among the elderly, housewives, and people from lower socioeconomic groups. Living in areas with walkable greenspaces positively influenced the longevity of urban senior citizens independent of their age, sex, marital status, baseline functional status, and socioeconomic status.
The character of neighborhoods also exerts significant affects on residents’ physical activity; thus neighborhood design is becoming a public health issue. Once sidewalks and trails are in place, the presence of nature influences perception of and motivation for activity. Also, people make more walking trips to task destinations (such as stores or coffee shops) when they perceive that there are many natural features in their neighborhood, including street trees. In less green neighborhoods, people judge distances to be greater than they actually are, perhaps leading to decisions not to walk.
People who use public open spaces are three times more likely to achieve recommended levels of physical activity than those who do not use the spaces. Users and potential users prefer nearby, attractive, and larger parks and open spaces.
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City Trees, Nature, and Physical Activity