A natural advantage

Bridgepoint Hospital in Toronto, Canada.
Bridgepoint Hospital in Toronto, Canada.

No matter where you are in Toronto’s new Bridgepoint Hospital you can observe a park or garden through large windows.

Gardens cover the grounds and a roof of the hospital, which serves patients who need long-term rehabilitation or disease management. Inside, walls are painted in green or the blue of nearby Lake Ontario. Nature themes dominate artwork.

The design aims to connect patients to the surrounding community and park, says Celeste Alvaro, a specialist in experimental social psychology who heads a team researching green features and their impacts.

Data on health outcomes, such as how much sooner patients are ready to be discharged, are still being analyzed in a study that compares the year-old Bridgepoint with the building it replaced and another hospital with a similar mandate. The study is the first of its kind in Canada.

But one thing is already clear, Alvaro says. Patients and visitors use the gardens whenever possible; inside, they gravitate to the many windows. “Patients want to be outside, or positioned by a window to be exposed to what’s going on outside.”

Bridgepoint’s work is part of a trend toward acknowledging the health benefits of exposure to nature. It extends beyond hospital care: Corporations are being urged to adopt it to improve employees’ well-being and productivity. Experts view it as a general rule for everyone.

Decades of research consistently conclude that wilderness trips, time in a city park or even gazing at pictures of trees and water improves mental and physical health.

“Natural environments may have direct and positive impacts on well-being,” states a review of 25 studies, headed by Andrew Pullin of Bangor University in Wales.

“Humans are hard-wired genetically for an affiliation with the natural world,” says American author Richard Louv, who coined the term “nature deficit disorder” to describe the unhealthy consequences for the growing population deprived of it.

Nature builds strong minds and bodies three ways:

• Exposure to it directly improves health;

• People living near parks or other natural areas exercise more, which contributes to the prevention of more than 20 conditions including coronary heart disease, diabetes, some cancers, mental illness and obesity;

• Natural areas absorb pollution, reducing cardiovascular and respiratory diseases.

“A growing body of evidence suggests that human mental and physical health is closely associated with the health of our forest ecosystems,” says “A Healthy Dose of Green,” a recent report from Trees Ontario.

Green spaces provide exposure to the microbes, or “old friends,” that stimulate our immune system but are lacking in high-income countries, Graham Rook of University College London said in a study last year. It’s “a neglected ecosystem service that is essential for our well-being.”

Hospital patients are said to benefit from even minimal naturalization.

“Patients in rooms with plants and flowers had significantly shorter hospitalizations, fewer intakes of analgesics, lower ratings of pain, anxiety, and fatigue, and more positive feelings and higher satisfaction about their rooms when compared with patients in the control group,” states a 2009 study by researchers at Kansas State University.

That research echoed an earlier study of people who had gall bladder surgery at a Pennsylvania hospital. Those with trees outside their windows took fewer painkillers, appeared to nurses to have fewer negative effects and spent less time in hospital than those viewing only brick walls.

The addition of gardens, aquariums, plants and artwork (but not abstract) has become part of creating “healing environments,” along with more private rooms, less noise, natural lighting, better signage and social areas such as lounges.

Advocates of corporate social responsibility say businesses – even those creating natural areas on their properties, funding urban parks or protecting wilderness areas – aren’t yet engaged in the health impacts of these environmental activities, beyond attempting to improve employees’ job satisfaction and reduce workplace stress.

But they might consider a study of “visual search accuracy,” conducted two years ago at New Mexico State University that exposed undergraduates to natural or urban images, and then tested how well they could detect whether a target – an “O” – was embedded in pictures showing other letters.

The nature group did much better. Perhaps airport baggage-screening agents would perform more proficient searches if exposed to images of nature while on their shift, radiologists would benefit from a bit of foliage in the office or office workers would gain from a computer background cycling through nature images, the report suggests.

It seems, says American psychologist Eric Jaffe, that being in nature engages “involuntary” attention – “a rather effortless form of engagement with the world” – giving a breather to voluntary attention, which is crucial to problem-solving and demands energy and focus.

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