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Anyone having trouble sleeping might want to take a walk to their nearest park — or at least look out the window.
People who live close to green spaces and bodies of water are less likely to report having bad sleep, according to a multi-ethnic, nationally representative sample of about 245,000 Americans. The research, led by community health professor Diana Grigsby-Toussaint of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, found this effect was strongest in men and people over 65 years old, although the researchers couldn’t tell why this was the case.
“Studies show that inadequate sleep is associated with declines in mental and physical health, reduced cognitive function, and increased obesity,” said Grigsby-Toussaint in a statement. “This new study shows that exposure to a natural environment may help people get the sleep they need.”
There are several reasons why nature could be helping people get their snooze on. For one, it’s been shown that people who live near parks and natural green spaces are more likely to engage in moderate and vigorous physical activity, and even light exercise helps people sleep better. Secondly, research suggests that people who take walks in nature are also reaping mental health benefits like less depression and lower stress levels — things that also contribute to a good night’s sleep. Finally, spending prolonged time outdoors helps align your body to natural day- and night-time, which is useful for strengthening the hormone signal melatonin that’s responsible for those feelings of sleepiness you get in the evening.
It should be noted that Grigsby-Toussaint’s survey didn’t ask participants whether or not they actually took advantage of their green spaces by, say, walking along the shore or hiking in nearby state parks. Her team instead used county-level data on lakes, oceanfronts, hills, mountains and other natural features and scored them on a scale of one to seven. They then analyzed data about whether participants could remember any nights they had poor rest or sleep in the past 30 days, and controlled for factors like employment status, education, cigarette and alcohol use, BMI, income level, and exercise levels, as these are all known to affect sleep quality. The group did not control for environmental variables like crime, which could have a negative affect on people spending time outdoors.
The analysts found that people who reported having the worst sleep — 21 to 29 days of restless nights out of 30 — also had the lowest odds of being exposed to natural green spaces. The effect was especially strong in men and people over 65 years old, but the relationship was weak in women.
“We speculate that women might have more safety concerns compared to men when engaging in outdoor activities, but more research is needed to explore this hypothesis further,” Grigsby-Toussaint explained in an email to HuffPost.
Of course, not everyone is lucky enough to live in beach communities or near national parks. For landlocked urban dwellers, Grimsby-Toussaint recommends that they be intentional about seeking encounters with nature, no matter how small the scale. But she was more enthusiastic about community planners taking these findings and using them to develop neighborhoods that emphasize walking through parks and other green public spaces.
“Specifically, our results provide an incentive for nursing homes and communities with many retired residents to design buildings with more lighting, create nature trails and dedicated garden spaces, and provide safe outdoor areas that encourage outdoor activity for men and women,” she concluded.
In Minneapolis, city planners are investing $50 million into the 12-block Nicollet Mall in order to make it more green and pedestrian friendly. And around the world, major cities like Oslo and Vancouver are jumping on the trend to redevelop waterfront property to make it as inclusive as possible for the general public — something advocates at the New York City-based Project for Public Spaces call the “Global Waterfront Renaissance.” It’s not likely that improving residents’ sleep is the main goal for these renovations, but the benefits of public natural space are too vast to confine to just one or two perks.
Grigsby-Toussaint’s research was published in the Sept. 2015 issue of the journal Preventive Medicine.