Physical activity in nature helps prevent several diseases, including depression and type 2 diabetes

Physical activity in natural environments like beaches, parks, and the countryside prevents nearly 13,000 cases of non-communicable diseases each year in England, saving more than £100 million in treatment costs, according to a new study from the University of Exeter. Non-communicable diseases, also known as chronic diseases, are responsible for 74 percent of global mortality and are increasing in most countries.

Physical Inactivity and Chronic Disease Burden

Physical inactivity is associated with a range of non-communicable diseases, including cardiovascular diseases, type-2 diabetes, cancers, and mental health issues. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that if physical activity levels remain unchanged, there will be 500 million new cases of chronic diseases globally between 2020 and 2030, incurring more than £21 billion in annual treatment costs.

Using data from a representative cross-sectional survey of the English population, researchers at the University of Exeter estimated the number of cases of six non-communicable diseases – major depressive disorder, type 2 diabetes, ischaemic heart disease, ischaemic stroke, colon cancer, and breast cancer – that are prevented through nature-based recreational physical activity.

Underestimating the True Value of Nature-Based Physical Activity

Dr. James Grellier from the University of Exeter Medical School believes that this study is the first of its kind on a national scale and that the true value of nature-based physical activity in disease prevention has almost certainly been underestimated. “Although we have focused on six of the most common non-communicable diseases, there are several less common diseases that can be prevented by physical activity, including other types of cancer and mental ill health,” he said.

In 2019, 22 million adults in England aged 16 years or older visited natural environments at least once a week. The researchers estimate that this prevented 12,763 cases of non-communicable diseases, resulting in annual healthcare savings of £108.7 million. The healthcare cost of physical inactivity in England in 2019 is approximately £1 billion.

Dr. Grellier emphasizes the importance of investing in natural spaces to make it easier for people to be physically active, particularly for those who may not have access to or interest in organized sports or fitness activities. “We believe that our study should motivate decision-makers seeking to increase physical activity in the local population to invest in natural spaces, such as parks, to make it easier for people to be physically active,” he said.

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