Leading the UK's Research into the Health Benefits

It is widely accepted that the environment in which we live can influence our health, and that access to green space can benefit our overall well being considerably. What is not fully understood, however, is why this is the case.

As the UK's lead research organisation in the European Commission's €3.5m PHENOTYPE project, Staffordshire University's Centre for Sport, Health and Exercise Research (CSHER) will play a key role in establishing just why the great outdoors is so good for us. Once findings are complete, the group will then contribute towards the evidence base that will help form future guidelines into land use and green space planning, particularly in our urban environments.

Establishing the positive health effects

A four-year project, the objective of PHENOTYPE (Positive Health Effects of the Natural Outdoor Environment in Typical Populations in different regions of Europe), is to deliver verification of the benefits that exposure to the natural environment can bring to human health.

For the UK-based research (seven other organisations will be conducting similar studies across Europe), a team of Staffordshire University academics, led by Dr Christopher Gidlow, has begun using a range of techniques to measure the benefits that access to green open spaces can provide.

Gaining the views of 1,000 residents

"We have established a number of methods to identify the types of environment that are beneficial to people's health and well being," comments Dr Gidlow. "For example, we have already begun a community survey to ask some 1,000 residents from 30 neighbourhoods across Stoke-on-Trent and Newcastle about their local environment, lifestyle and general health." 

Using GPS tracking

"Using GPS technology," he continues, "we will then track the 'real time' movements of around 100 of our participants for a full seven days, in order to establish whether being near parks, lakes or other natural locations has an impact on their exercise levels and well being. This will enable us to determine when and where those individuals are most physically active.

"As the whole purpose of the PHENOTYPE project is to evaluate the relationship between the natural environment and health outcomes in different regions of Europe, simultaneous data collection will be taking place in Spain, Lithuania and the Netherlands. The results will be fascinating."

Measuring the therapeutic benefits

As part of its research, Dr Gidlow's team will then measure the ‘therapeutic' effects that natural environments can have on health and well being. This phase of the project will test each participant's responses, in terms of emotional state, heart rate, blood pressure and cortisol, a hormone that is released under stress.

There will be around 80 participants across two experimental studies. Those taking part will be first tested in a controlled ‘laboratory' environment. They will then be tested after spending some time in different natural and urban environments, and tested again when back in the laboratory.  The results will indicate whether there are any physiological benefits of being in natural outdoor environments, and whether or not those benefits are retained for any length of time.

Setting out the guidelines for a healthier future

"We will be looking not only at exposure to natural environments, but also how the type and quality of those environments impacts on health," says Dr Gidlow. "The project aims to identify which environments are most beneficial for health and to help us better understand the reasons for this. Our final report will set out the guidelines for future land and green space development, with community health at the heart of decision-making."

A reputation for promoting healthy living

Since it was established in 2001, Staffordshire University's Centre for Sport, Health and Exercise Research has gained a considerable reputation for the quality of its research into the benefits of healthy living and the better use of urban green spaces. It is the following projects, however, that led to the CSHER team being partners in the PHENOTYPE project.

Medical Research Council initiative

Supported by a £304,000 Medical Research Council-funded National Preventative Research Initiative, between 2006 and 2008 the CSHER team mapped the physical activity, individual intentions and readiness to be healthier across a number of deprived inner-city communities.

Important environmental influences, such as access to green space and opportunities for health behavioural change were also identified. The significance of this project was such that it established important links between the environment and health and convinced Natural England, the government's advisor on the natural environment, that Staffordshire University, in association with Groundwork Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire, should undertake their ProGreSS (Promoting Green Spaces in Stoke-on-Trent) initiative.

Making considerable ProGreSS

Stoke-on-Trent was selected for Natural England's green spaces project as the amount of green space in the city is well above the national average, and is a resource with great public health potential for residents.
This 18-month project embraced local partnership working to promote and improve neighbourhood green space in a deprived urban community in Stoke-on-Trent.  As part of the project, 1,000 households were consulted and, as a result, improvements were made to a four-hectare public park. A number of community events were then arranged for local adults and children, with follow-up data showing improvements in public perception of the park and a real reduction in anti-social behaviour

Making a real impact in research

Around the globe and across the UK, researchers from Staffordshire University are making a real impact. From providing sustainable solutions to the problems faced by society, to transforming lives, tackling global issues and devising flexible new ways of teaching and learning, our academics, graduates and research students are helping to make the world a much better place.