How exercise can positively affect your environmental health

Healthy environment, healthy people

Investments in environmental health sustainability can serve as an insurance policy for health and human well-being

Environmental degradation – the air we breathe, the food we eat, the water we drink and the ecosystems that sustain us – is responsible for at least a quarter of the total global burden of disease, according to a new estimate. UNEP report entitled Healthy Environment, Healthy People

Directly addressing the interlinkages between the environment and human health presents new and interconnected opportunities to meet the Sustainable Development Goals in a more cost-effective and beneficial way. “Ensuring healthy lives and promoting well-being for all at all ages” (SDG3) – which includes a specific target related to air quality – cannot be achieved in the long term without explicit action on terrestrial ecosystems (SDG15), oceans (SDG14), cities (SDG11), water and sanitation (SDG6).

Air pollution is the world’s biggest environmental health risk (about 7 million people die worldwide each year due to daily exposure to poor air quality), but it cannot be viewed in isolation.

Environmental degradation is costly

It is estimated that environmental degradation causes 174-234 times more premature deaths than occur annually in conflict. Disproportionate impacts of environmental damage are seen among specific groups: the poor, the young, the elderly, women and migrant workers, the report says.

Zika, Ebola, MERS, SARS, Marburg… new zoonotic diseases (spread from animals to humans) are currently emerging every four months, with the main drivers being exponential population growth, intensive livestock farming (there are 36 billion domestic animals on the planet) and accompanying degraded environments and loss of biodiversity. Enhancing healthy ecosystems is key to preventing or slowing the onset of these costly diseases. Greater investment in integrated wildlife, livestock and human health surveillance is a key need.

The financial cost of environmental health risks is generally in the range of 5-10 percent of GDP, with air pollution taking the highest toll. However, there is evidence of the catalytic and multiple benefits of investment in environmental quality in terms of development, poverty reduction, resource security, reduced inequalities and reduced risks to human health and well-being.

A 2012 UNEP report entitled the role and contribution of montane forests and associated ecosystem services to the Kenyan economy showed that well-managed montane forests reduced the incidence of malarial disease and that malaria resulted in additional health costs to the government as well as labour productivity losses.

Kenya’s montane forests, better known as Kenya’s “Water Towers”, produce direct economic value for its citizens. This value derives not only from the production of various timber and non-timber forest products, but also from a range of regulatory ecosystem services that provide insurance value to several key economic sectors. There is also a secondary or indirect multiplier effect associated with the direct economic value of water towers… Mountain forests are consistently undervalued in conventional national accounting, the report’s executive summary states.

The UNEP report Healthy Environment, Healthy People states that lack of access to clean water and sanitation causes 58 percent of diarrheal disease cases in low- and middle-income countries. Unsafe water, inadequate sanitation or poor sanitation result in 3.5 million deaths worldwide, accounting for 25 percent of premature deaths among children under 14, it said.


Mental health

There is growing evidence to suggest that exposure to the natural environment may be associated with mental health benefits.

Clean air and water, sanitation and greenery, safe workplaces can improve the quality of people’s lives: reduce mortality and morbidity, healthier lifestyles, improve the productivity of workers and their families, improve the lives of women, children and the elderly, and are essential for mental health.

Mental health problems are among the top 10 non-fatal threats in most countries, the report says.

A growing body of evidence suggests that exposure to the natural environment may be associated with mental health benefits. Proximity to greenery is associated with lower levels of stress and reduced symptomology of depression and anxiety, while interacting with nature can improve cognitive abilities in children with attention deficit disorder and individuals with depression.


A 2014 epidemiological study found that people who move to greener urban areas benefit from sustained improvements in their mental health.

“It is increasingly evident that the 2.2 million years our species spent in the natural environment is a consequence of modern mental health… The accumulating strength of research from various disciplines makes it difficult to dismiss the clinical relevance of the natural environment in 21st century mental health care.,” another report states.

An integrated approach

Based on evidence of the links between poor environmental quality and health, the report identifies several priority problem areas that require urgent policy attention, including:

Unsafe water, inadequate sanitation, or inadequate sanitation that cause mortality, morbidity, and loss of economic productivity;

Nutritionally poor diet composition and quality, as well as increased physical inactivity, which have increased the growth of non-communicable diseases worldwide; and

Degraded ecosystems and pressure on Earth’s natural systems that reduce ecosystem services that support human health, increase exposure to natural disasters, food security, and occasionally lead to disease outbreaks.




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