Growing up near green spaces lowers risk of harmful aging, disease — even without exercise

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BARCELONA, Spain — Is simply living near green leaves and grass enough to make you healthier? A new study reveals children who visit or live near green spaces suffer from less cellular stress that can cause harmful aging and disease.

A team from the Barcelona Institute for Global Health add that exposure to vegetation alone, not physical exercise, likely makes the difference. Scientists found that children exposed to green spaces had lower levels of oxidative stress.

What is oxidative stress?

Oxygen is an essential ingredient for many of the chemical reactions which keep the human body ticking. However, these oxidation processes can generate harmful substances which the body cannot always neutralize quickly.

More specifically, oxidative stress develops when there is an imbalance between the number of harmful oxygen-containing molecules (free radicals) and antioxidants in the body. The permanent damage free radicals can trigger includes accelerated aging and the development of illnesses like cancer or Alzheimer’s disease.

Now, the team in Spain believes green spaces could help limit the damage it causes to children. These benefits could also help kids tackle respiratory illnesses and allergies.

“The short- and long-term health effects of excess oxidative stress are unknown, so we need to conduct further research and support city and public-health strategies that favor greenness,” study author Dr. Garcia-Aymerich at ISGlobal says in a media release.

The researchers analyzed 323 healthy children between eight and 11 years-old from five primary schools in Asti, a small city in northwestern Italy. Their parents filled out a questionnaire revealing how often their children engaged in physical exercise. Study authors then calculated each kid’s level of oxidative stress by measuring the concentration of compounds in their urine.

Researchers also used the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) to figure out how much greenery kids had around their home and school. Results show children with more exposure to vegetation had lower levels of oxidative stress.

What makes nature so beneficial to health?

Several biological mechanisms could explain why green spaces have this effect on a child’s ability to withstand oxidative stress.

“Increased exposure to these areas may contribute to children’s immune development by bringing them into contact with organisms that tend to colonize natural environments,” Dr. Judith Garcia-Aymerich says.

Spending time in green spaces could also expose kids to more sunlight and increase their vitamin D levels. Studies show vitamin D acts like an antioxidant which prevents the negative effects of oxidative stress and inflammation. Last but not least, having more green spaces and plants could also improve the air quality in urban areas where kids live and play.

The team notes, however, that they did not find any evidence that physical exercise contributes to the benefits of green spaces. Dr. Garcia-Aymerich says that even though children often play more outdoors when they have green spaces in their community, the benefits coming from nature don’t require kids to actually be more physical. Essentially, just stopping to smell the roses will improve your health as a child.

The findings are published in the journal Environmental Research.

South West News Service writer Tom Campbell contributed to this report.