The value of green and blue spaces for wellbeing

Can access to nature and fresh air improve wellness and reduce health inequalities? Dr Alice Willson reflects on her experience as RCPCH Clinical Fellow in the Clean Air Fund Partnership, and how we can imbed sustainability into our working lives.
Alice Willson, RCPCH Clinical Fellow, at the up of a mountain

In Thrive fellow Jess’s recent blog, she movingly described the challenges of experiencing mental illness as a medical professional. 

Hearing Jess’s story made me reflect on my own experiences of medical training and its effects on my wellbeing. Much as I love acute paediatrics, there’s no denying it is a multitude of micro traumas: the crying toddler who doesn’t want a cannula, the distressed parent of a newborn admitted with poor feeding, the safeguarding case where it feels like no-one is a winner, let alone the times where we can’t save that child.

Alongside this, we have a lack of staff and resources, we have families rightly angry at waiting so long, we have a bleep system which removes autonomy, an on-call system which destroys our circadian rhythm and rotational training which can leave us feeling like pieces in a game.

Stepping into a clinical fellow role at RCPCH has been an absolute joy. I’ve been reflecting on why this might be. There are the little things: the IT works, people know my name, people are nice to me. There are the big things: people are invested in my work, I have real purpose and opportunity to make changes at a population level. Then there’s something I didn’t even realise mattered so much to me: my environment and ability to experience clean air and blue/green space.

Thanks to my current work set up I actively commute to school nursery with my children in a double running buggy – that’s at least 40 minutes of fresh air and cardiovascular exercise in a day. We’re encouraged to have an hour for lunch, in which I usually sit outside or do some pilates. I am sleeping eight hours a night and eating fresh nutritious food. And remarkably, I am the most well I’ve ever been – I literally can’t recall the last time I was unwell.

... if we can imagine a hopeful, greener, happier world that is better for people and planet, then we should fight for it

There’s a multitude of evidence about the value of blue/green space for psychological and physical wellbeing. And within the Clean Air Fund (AF) partnership we think there is a really positive intersection between wellbeing and clean air.

No-one wants to hear all the doom and gloom of air pollution constantly (we’ve all got enough to worry about as it is!). But if we can imagine a hopeful, greener, happier world that is better for people and planet, then we should fight for it.

Happily, there are now lots of initiatives that see the co-benefits of outdoor exercise and tackling air pollution (and climate change more widely). The Green Runners was set up to advocate for the planet and to reduce the impacts of running activities like flying to races or buying lots of new kit.  Patagonia has long had sustainable credentials and has the Running up for Air campaign with a Strava challenge running 1-9 June.

Also this month there’s the Great Big Green Week, which this year is encouraging people to make little swaps – like walking a bit of your commute or taking the stairs to a crash call! To kick of Great Big Green Week, Our Officer for Climate Change, Helena, will be joining a UK Health Alliance on Climate Change for a cycle around regents park. And not forgetting Clean Air Day on 20 June when there will be a plethora of active opportunities.

Now I know that this is easier said that done. I also know that for lots of people struggling with a cost-of-living crisis or trying to sort childcare for kids or dealing with any of the many challenges in our horribly unequal society, worrying about the planet is just not on the agenda.

But there is evidence that through green space we can actively reduce health inequalities (and to be honest, access to green space is a fundamental human right). What’s more, there is increasing momentum behind imbedding sustainability into the NHS for the good of both patients and staff.

So my promise to myself, when I go back into clinical medicine next year, is to hold onto the value of imbedding sustainability into my routine and to share it with colleagues. It’s not a nice ‘added extra’. It will be fundamental to my practice as a functioning doctor.