The benefits of green space on mental health are not unknown. However a new interdisciplinary research institute in Cornwall is set to tackle the numerous linkages between health and the environment, from the very negative in the form of pollution risks and climate change, to the positive health and wellbeing benefits that living near the coast can bring. But us city folk need not despair: urban parks can be pretty good too.

I was at the Environment and Human Health event, hosted by the European Centre for Environment and Human Health, Exeter University (though they are actually based at the medical school in Truro). Professor Lora Fleming and Professor Michael Depledge laid out their vision of a collaborative, interdisciplinary, and both policy and industry driven academic centre. We were in the Cholmondeley room (try saying that after a few!) in the House of Lords, which made for an impressive setting. The wind and the Thames certainly created the perfect coastal atmosphere (remind me, when will spring arrive?).

It was wholly refreshing to speak to such like minded people who believe in a truly holistic and collaborative approach to science. With the current focus on ‘impact’ in academia, scientists are encouraged to promote their work in the public sphere and consider the potential wider societal benefits and applications. This academic group illustrates a very interesting model approach to this, by interacting openly with industries and policymakers, assessing their needs as an audience and using this improved understanding to target future research. Indeed the aim of the afternoon was to reach out to policymakers promoting awareness of the centre’s work and developing future links.

The centre examines the relationship between environment and health, and this covers a broad range of both positive and negative interpretations. Of particular interest are the positive health and wellbeing effects that the natural environment can offer.

Dr Mathew White spoke of how access to, and time spent in green space can cause a systematic reduction in stress. He quoted a Lancet article which suggests that the closer you live to green space, the less likely you are to be dead by 65. Reassuring for countryside dwellers, but perhaps not such good news for us Londoners!

Matthew also spoke of the coast and the previous negative associations with the sea in environmental science due to risks from microbes, toxins, chemicals and floods. However he went on to explain that if we compare a stroll along the beach, with a stroll in the countryside, or a stroll in an urban park, then, whilst all are beneficial, the ocean (‘Blue Space’) has the best stress reducing qualities. And not only that, but other research has suggested that, on average, the closer you live to the coast, the healthier you are, mostly due to the increased exercise opportunities (the so called dog walker effect). Importantly, not only do these positive associations exist UK-wide, but the health benefit is greatest in the UK’s poorest social regions.

The question then turned to, how do we replicate the stress reducing qualities of the ocean, indoors? And can this have benefits and applications in our healthcare environment? A fascinating (and marginally amusing) randomised control trial has been conducted in a population with dental anxiety (not yet published); where pain was replicated by placing their hand in a bucket of ice cold water! The treatment group received a virtual experience in which they could walk around a virtual ocean environment, and the control group received the standard patient care. When compared, the patients who had experienced the virtual environment reported less pain, and also crucially, remembered the experience as less painful and more pleasant. Technology such as this could have money saving benefits for the NHS if it means that nervous patients are more likely to keep appointments.

I’m not sure about you, but the thought of playing on virtual reality software just might make me go to the dentist…