Growing up closer to nature improves children’s lung health

Story at a glance

  • Greater exposure to nature has been linked with a host of health benefits, including reduced stress and improved mental health.

  • New research from a cohort of Portuguese children shows proximity to green spaces can also yield lung health benefits.

  • Study authors argue the findings underscore the importance of increasing green spaces in urban environments. 

In the past, studies have highlighted the important mental health benefits of spending time in nature. Now, new research published in the European Respiratory Journal underscores how being closer to nature can lead to physical health benefits, particularly among children.

Using data from the Generation XXI, a population-based cohort in Portugal, investigators carried out a longitudinal study of 3,278 children. Results showed children exposed to vegetation close to their homes within the first 10 years of life exhibited superior lung function. 

Based on these findings, families may want to consider moving to greener areas, authors noted. But because economic constraints may prevent some from relocation, urban environments could also work to better incorporate green spaces into their landscapes.

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“To reduce health inequalities, we need to make our cities greener, especially in areas where there is little or no green space. In particular, we need to involve children and their carers to make sure our parks and gardens suit their needs,” said study co-author Diogo Queiroz Almeida of University of Porto, Portugal in a press release. 

Despite the positive findings, the mechanism for the association remains unknown. Almeida hypothesized the positive effects could be due to the physical benefits of stress reduction that occur in nature, or changes in children’s microbiome.

Researchers assessed proximity to green spaces among included children at birth and at ages 4, 7, and 10, while average exposure, early life exposure (birth) and exposure trend over time were all measured. Satellite data and maps were used to measure geographical exposure to vegetation.

Once children reached age 10, investigators carried out three tests to classify lung health. These tests measure the maximum amount of air one blows out after taking their deepest breath.

Exposure to vegetation within 100 meters of a child’s home over time was associated with higher values on two of the three tests, while findings were consistent regardless of factors like air pollution exposure or physical activity levels.”

Although the improvements reported were modest — at around 2 percent — researchers said making neighborhoods greener could have a considerable impact among the whole population.

“We know that early childhood is a crucial time for lungs to grow and develop, and that a child’s environment and the air they breathe can have an impact on their lung health for the rest of their life,” added Marielle Pijnenburg of the European Respiratory Society in the same release. Pijnenburg was not involved in the research.

“This finding contributes to a growing number of studies that show health benefits of making our neighborhoods greener and healthier,” Pijnenburg said.