Unless one has managed to avoid the internet, commercial television and those ubiquitous Tess Daly billboards, one hallmark of 21st-century culture will have become apparent to readers: the rampant monetisation of what has become known as “wellness” (capitalism always needs a neologism), a global industry worth $1.5tn and growing at 5% to 10% a year.
Healthcare and wellbeing as big business is, of course, not new, whether useless quackery or legitimate scientific breakthrough. From the “miracle remedies” of the early 20th century to cigarettes marketed as health products; from the synthesis of chlorpromazine in the 1950s, revolutionising psychiatric medicine, to gamechanging antiretroviral therapies for HIV. We’ve had leeches and we’ve had Jane Fonda 80s workout tapes, but we’ve also had penicillin and organ transplants. It wasn’t, however, until the late 2010s that Gwyneth Paltrow started putting jade eggs up her vagina and “semen facials” became a thing. Which rather took it to another level.
But this month, one Finnish study joined an increasing body of evidence advocating a back to basics approach when it comes to wellbeing (ie not putting jade eggs up one’s vagina). Researchers found that access to green spaces in urban areas correlated with lower rates of depression, anxiety, insomnia, asthma and high blood pressure.
Working on the basis that taking prescription drugs was a reasonable indicator of poor health, people who visited green spaces or blue spaces (bodies of water) three to four times a week were 33% less likely to be taking mental health drugs; 36% less likely to be on blood pressure medication; and 26% less likely to be on asthma medication. (The study did not assess whether increasing access to green or blue spaces resulted in an uptick in the health of participants measured in another way.)
The theory that access to nature is beneficial has a long history – did you ever meet a hysterical woman or coughing elder in literature who wasn’t sent to take the mountain air? – but, perhaps as a reaction to more outre wellness takes, increasingly broken healthcare systems and the saturation of tech, wholesomeness is back. The interest in “forest bathing” (taking a walk in a forest to people who aren’t Instagram influencers, and shinrin-yoku to longtime fans in Japan) and the boom in open- and cold-water swimming are strong indications, as is the huge popularity of local events such as parkrun.
Unfortunately, a decade of austerity and privatisation in the UK has resulted in a decline in access to such spaces, especially for the poorest people in society, who already have worse health outcomes. Fields in Trust, a charity that buys green spaces to protect them in perpetuity, found that 2.8 million people in the UK live more than 10 minutes’ walk from a public green area. In the six years to 2012, the UK lost 54,000 acres of green space, most of it to housing. There is a desperate and catastrophic shortage of housing in this country, but one suspects that flogging 215 school playing fields between 2010 and 2019, when the NHS calculated that in 2016 nearly 30% of two- to 15-year-olds in England were overweight or obese, isn’t the ideal solution.
The decline in access to such spaces is in contrast with an increase in social prescribing, which can include GPs and specialist workers referring patients to the likes of gardening clubs (a practice that has both supporters and detractors). For gardening to be prescribed, however, gardens have to exist.
Communities, though, are fighting back against declining access. This year, a number of lidos have been allocated funding to reopen after effective campaigning. And people who have been underrepresented in certain community and recreation spaces (often because of discrimination) are coming together and setting up groups to ensure that this is no longer the case.
There’s an argument that social prescribing is a distraction from the horrendous fact that 7 million people in England are waiting for NHS treatment, and I certainly do not advocate the throwing out of prescription medications (which I personally feel I benefit from, as do many others). It is true that our understanding of the efficacy of certain drugs is continually evolving, particularly in psychiatry. But banishing severe depression or anxiety by eschewing clinically proven drugs and taking a nice stroll is not the end goal here. I say this as a dedicated cold-water swimmer (How do you know someone goes cold-water swimming? They’ll tell you about it.)
There’s obviously a clear dividing line between saying that a brisk walk will do one good and believing that positive thinking and a dip will cure all, but, as with most things in life, it’s a combination. As the pandemic taught us, natural spaces are to be treasured, for reasons both of health and social cohesion. In internet parlance, we should all “go touch grass”.
Hannah Jane Parkinson is a Guardian columnist