This post was first published by The Croydon Citizen on 27/10/2017.
London’s first Natural Health Service launches in Croydon, using nature to reduce demand on NHS
The Natural Health Service launched in Croydon this autumn, encouraging residents to use nature to improve their wellbeing. The new initiative, the first in London, will provide and promote activity in the natural environment to support residents’ emotional, physical and social health, and by working with GPs, seek to reduce demand on the NHS.
The initiative is being led by local not-for-profit organisations. Participants will be able to access a wide programme of nature-based activities including gardening, conservation, bushcraft, nature-based counselling, ecotherapy, volunteering, walks, running, cycling, nutrition and cookery.
Use nature to support individual wellbeing and the development of resilient and healthy communities
Our aims are to:
- Use nature to support individual wellbeing and the development of resilient and healthy communities
- Relieve pressure on the NHS, addressing both preventative and reactive healthcare and social pressures
- Enable GPs to offer social prescriptions
When I moved to Croydon three years ago, I was amazed at the number of beautiful woods and parkland that belied the borough’s reputation. It was so exciting to discover ever more pockets of green as I got to know the borough better. It’s always a thrill to share the joy with newly introduced people who say “oh my gosh, this is Croydon,” just as I did.
As one of London’s greenest boroughs, Croydon has a fantastic opportunity to use its natural capital to support health. We have some of the highest areas of deprivation in London, but also some of the highest amounts of quality green space, giving us the chance to use time in nature to tackle the consequences of deprivation on the wellbeing of individuals and communities.
It is apparent that we need new ways of engaging people with what was once a commonplace relationship with the outdoors
The Natural Health Service helps people cultivate the practice of using nature to support health by encouraging meaningful engagement with nature as part of our self-care, helping us to make cities liveable places, rather than survivable spaces. (The Natural Health Service will be rolled out across London over the next year.)
For those of us who enjoy a good connection with nature, the concept may seem like an unnecessary rehash of common sense. However, when the extent to which many people have lost connection to nature is taken into account, it is apparent that we need new ways of engaging people with what was once a commonplace relationship with the outdoors, which now competes with a screen-driven, indoor-orientated lifestyle.
Today less than one in ten children play regularly in green spaces, half the number of children who played outdoors a generation ago. In the last thirty years, children’s roaming radius has shrunk by 90%. Seven out of ten people feel they are losing touch with nature, one-third of people don’t feel they know enough about wildlife to pass knowledge on to their children and one in three cannot identify an oak tree.
With trends towards fast moving lifestyles in horizonless streets and fragmented social networks, we can become disconnected from the natural world
This generational loss of contact with nature means there are many people who are unaware of how good nature can make us feel and who lack confidence in how to enjoy green spaces. The Natural Health Service helps us reconnect not just with natural settings, but with the knowledge of older generations and our ancestors, rediscovering how they engaged with nature, giving us a sense of connection to communities both past and present.
As more of us live in cities (90% of the UK population) with trends towards fast moving lifestyles in horizonless streets and fragmented social networks, we can become disconnected from the natural world and the quality of our relationships can suffer.
Research shows that grey and busy urban settings can be detrimental to health, overstimulating us and triggering our fight or flight responses, whereas green spaces activate areas of the brain associated with love and empathy. Time in nature has been neuroscientifically proven to have health-promoting characteristics, reducing anxiety, depression and stress, lowering blood pressure and improving memory, concentration and meditative feelings:
- Thirty minutes a week in nature reduces depression and high blood pressure
- A ninety-minute walk in nature reduces rumination
- Walking can reduce both heart disease and diabetes by 50% and colon cancer by 30%
- An hour of bird watching burns 175 calories
- An hour of conservation work clearing land and hauling branches burns 280 calories
Gathering in the natural world to get fit, learn new skills, explore, make friends, play and relax, all help to counter modern endemics of isolation, loneliness and inactivity.
The Natural Health Service aims to create a lasting relationship between individuals and nature as a means of supporting health throughout their lifetime.
The Natural Health Service places an emphasis on preventative care, helping people to maintain good health, as well as tackle ill health. People of all fitness levels are welcome, and you can also be referred by your GP through a social prescription.
It is estimated that over 30% of weekly GP appointments are not medically related but are due to social issues
It is estimated that over 30% of weekly GP appointments are not medically related but are due to social issues such as isolation and loneliness. The Natural Health Service hopes that by working with GPs to provide an alternative intervention, we can help to reduce visits and prescription costs, relieving pressure on the NHS.
We’d like GPs to ask patients questions about how often they spend time in nature when conducting health checks, along with those about smoking, drinking and diet; establishing nature’s importance for health and planting a seed of inspiration.
If residents increase their exercise uptake through the Natural Health Service, it will support the borough in decreasing the amount of money its spending on inactivity, currently £5.7 million per annum. It has been estimated that if everyone in the nation had access to nature, we would save the NHS £2.1 billion in healthcare costs.