Hikers in Zion Natioanl Park, Utah

Hikers in Zion Natioanl Park, Utah (Photo by Maridav on Shutterstock)

EXETER, United Kingdom — New research may give you extra motivation to skip the treadmill in favor of a jog or hike outside. Scientists at the University of Exeter have found that exercising in nature may help prevent thousands of cases of various diseases in the United Kingdom alone. Along with potentially saving countless people worldwide from heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and depression, the researchers note that this healthy lifestyle change can also reduce healthcare costs by hundreds of millions of dollars.

Specifically, the U.K. team estimates that physical activity in nature prevents roughly 13,000 cases of non-communicable diseases a year in England alone. It also reduces treatment costs by more than $125 million.

According to the World Health Organization, the most common non-communicable diseases (including stroke, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and chronic lung disease) account for 74 percent of global deaths. Although non-communicable diseases (also known as chronic diseases) do not pass from person to person, deaths attributed to them continue to rise across most nations.

Published in the journal Environment International, the study estimates that in 2019, nature-based physical activity prevented 550 cases of ischemic heart disease, 168 cases of ischemic stroke, 1,410 cases of Type 2 diabetes, 41 cases of colon cancer, 37 cases of breast cancer, and 10,552 cases of major depressive disorder.

A lack of exercise, meanwhile, shows a clear association with a variety of non-communicable diseases such as cardiovascular diseases, Type 2 diabetes, cancers, and poor mental health outcomes. According to the WHO’s Global Status Report on Physical Activity 2022, roughly 500 million new cases will occur on a global scale between 2020 and 2030 if physical activity statistics remain at today’s levels. This would lead to over $26 billion annually in treatment costs.

A U.K. team estimates that physical activity in nature prevents roughly 13,000 cases of non-communicable diseases a year in England alone. (Photo by Toomas Tartes on Unsplash)

The outdoors, or natural environments, support and promote exercise. This new study focused specifically on areas like beaches and coasts, countryside, and open spaces in towns and cities such as parks. Using a dataset featuring a representative cross-sectional survey of the British population, study authors estimated how many cases of six non-communicable diseases (major depressive disorder, Type 2 diabetes, ischemic heart disease, ischemic stroke, colon cancer, and breast cancer) are stopped through nature-based recreational physical activity.

“We believe this is the first time an assessment like this has been conducted on a national scale and we’ve almost certainly underestimated the true value of nature-based physical activity in terms of disease prevention. 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. It’s important to note that our estimates represent annual costs. Since chronic diseases can affect people for many years, the overall value of physical activity at preventing each case is certainly much higher,” says Dr. James Grellier from the University of Exeter Medical School in a media release.

Researchers stress that boosting levels of exercise across all populations is an increasingly important strategic goal for public health institutions globally. The WHO recommends all adults between ages 18 and 64 perform at least 150 to 300 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic physical activity weekly, or a minimum of 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity, in order to maintain robust health. Unfortunately, current estimates reveal that on a global scale, 27.5 percent of adults fail to meet those suggestions.

The research team explains that 22 million adults in the U.K. (ages 16 years or older) visited natural environments at least once weekly in 2019. At those reported volumes of nature-based physical activity, study authors estimate this prevented 12,763 cases of non-communicable diseases, as well as annual healthcare savings of $136 million.

Additionally, population-representative data from the Monitor of Engagement with the Natural Environment survey helped formulate estimates of the weekly volume of nature-based recreational physical activity among adults in the U.K. in 2019. Researchers utilized epidemiological dose-response data to calculate incident cases of six non-communicable diseases prevented through nature-based exercise. Then, they estimated associated savings using published costs of healthcare, informal care, and productivity losses. Estimates put the healthcare cost of physical inactivity in England in 2019 somewhere around $1.25 billion.

“For people without the access, desire, or confidence to take part in organized sports or fitness activities, nature-based physical activity is a far more widely available and informal option. 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,” Dr. Grellier concludes.

The study is published in the journal Environment International.

About John Anderer

Born blue in the face, John has been writing professionally for over a decade and covering the latest scientific research for StudyFinds since 2019. His work has been featured by Business Insider, Eat This Not That!, MSN, Ladders, and Yahoo!

Studies and abstracts can be confusing and awkwardly worded. He prides himself on making such content easy to read, understand, and apply to one’s everyday life.

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