Wellbeing from nature

Research and projects related to nature’s impact on health and wellbeing in the Lahti region

People are part of nature. If nature suffers, people suffer. But nature also holds great potential for promoting wellbeing1. In many respects, the Lahti region is a forerunner in research and projects concerning nature’s impact on wellbeing, helping people and all of nature thrive.

photo: Riikka Puhakka

In 2022, the Päijät-Häme wellbeing services county, the City of Lahti and the Lahti University Campus jointly launched Nature Step to Health, a ten-year programme aiming to combine the region’s health and environmental targets. Health and wellbeing are promoted comprehensively by addressing the interconnections between people and the rest of nature.

The Planetary Prescription, a pilot project featured in international publications such as The Lancet, is part of the programme. In it, five Lahti residents of different ages received personalised health plans with prescriptions concerning their connection to nature, living environment, and sustainable exercise and nutrition. The wellbeing of all the participants improved during the two-month pilot2, indicating that a sustainable lifestyle can benefit both humans and the environment.

This article presents both completed and ongoing research into nature’s impact on wellbeing, as well as related projects pursued in the Lahti region. The Nature Step to Health programme supports projects and research of this kind.

Exposure to nature’s beneficial microbes is also possible in urban settings

Biodiversity loss is one of the greatest challenges to humans. Especially in urbanised societies, the reduced contact with nature is suspected to be linked to the increase in autoimmune diseases, such as type 1 diabetes, as well as allergies and asthma3-4.

This may result from inadequate exposure to the various microbes in nature, as a diverse microbiota supports the normal functioning of our immune defence system. The exposure and follow-up studies of adults in the Päijät-Häme region, conducted as part of the ADELE project of the University of Helsinki, support the assumption of health benefits offered by nature’s diverse microbiota5-7.

A diverse connection with nature can also be achieved in city centres – by simple measures, for that matter. In a study conducted in Lahti as part of the ADELE project, the introduction of organic materials in the yards of daycare centres was found to diversify the children’s skin microbiota. The changes were detected in blood values related to a lower risk of developing autoimmune diseases and allergies8-9. Improvements were also noted in the mood, energy and motivation of both children and adults10.

In a joint project of Natural Resources Institute Finland, the University of Helsinki and the University of Tampere, playing with microbially enriched sand was found to diversify children’s skin microbiota and improve their immunological defence11. This suggests that even brief daily exposure to microbes can have a considerable impact on the development of children’s immune systems. However, as the microbiota quickly returns to its initial composition, microbial exposure should take place daily12.

The study now continues in BIWE, a project coordinated by Natural Resources Institute Finland and the University of Tampere13, which seeks to determine, among other things, whether improving the biodiversity of the living environment affects residents’ nature connection and thus their microbial exposure.

photo: Mira Grönroos

Nature also has a positive impact on young people’s wellbeing

The impacts that interacting with nature have on the human microbiota have also been studied in NATUREWELL, a project in which 9th graders from Lahti engaged in various outdoor activities. Pupils from a vocational school also participated in nature hikes. The hikes were found to have a positive impact on the young people’s mood, sense of recovery and life satisfaction14. The participants highlighted the impacts on their social wellbeing – their mutual interaction, group spirit and social cohesion.

According to research, the majority of adolescents in Lahti spend time weekly in various natural environments, and nature affects their wellbeing in numerous ways15. Spending time in nature is found to be calming and relaxing, to alleviate stress, to be refreshing and to provide energy, as well as to clarify thoughts and improve concentration16-17. A survey revealed that those who frequently interact with nature are more satisfied with life and enjoy higher mental wellbeing15.

Nature is a diverse learning environment for young people

Nature offers a host of opportunities for improving young people’s wellbeing. There is a need for this, as especially young people in the Lahti region suffer from a higher than average mental load compared to other parts of the country18. Wellbeing is also greatly affected by youth unemployment, which is unfortunately high in the Lahti region19.

This was addressed in “Mun juttu”, a project conducted in 2015–2017, which was followed by LUODE, a project that continued until 202020. Both projects made versatile use of nature as a learning environment and a means to promote social wellbeing.

An operating model, “from the young to the young”, was developed in connection with the project. In it, students of sports studies organised nature activities in a course for groups of young people their age. Through their shared nature experiences, the participants developed their interaction and problem-solving skills in various ways. Overcoming challenges in nature helps young people experience success and find resources in themselves21.

photo: Riikka Puhakka

The Lahti health forest makes the wellbeing impacts of nature accessible to Päijät-Häme Central Hospital

Lahti and the Päijät-Häme region are filled with forests, offering numerous opportunities for enjoying nature’s beneficial impacts on wellbeing. The forests in Lahti are immensely valuable, as spending a mere quarter of an hour in the forest is revitalising and helps support mental wellbeing22.

The Lahti health forest bordering Päijät-Häme Central Hospital makes nature’s wellbeing impacts accessible to the hospital. A forest path leads deeper into the forest and criss-crosses the Kintterö nature reserve, an undulating landscape with ridges and glacial depressions. Persons with reduced mobility can enjoy the accessible nature trail circling Likolampi pond. The health forest is being developed as part of the GoGreenRoutes project, a comprehensive EU-funded initiative that also involves Lahti23.

Salpausselkä rehabilitation hospital, Jalmari, is located close to nature, and this is used to support the wellbeing of the ward’s rehabilitation clients. A study has been launched at the neurological rehabilitation ward to determine the impact of nature-based therapies on rehabilitation results and the involvement of family at different stages of rehabilitation.

The quality and diversity of a natural environment influence the experience of wellbeing, which has been taken into account in establishing the Lahti health forest. A Finnish field experiment found that pristine primary forests and mature commercial forests had greater restorative effects than young forests24.

Sensory exercises in Lahti health forest in September 2022. Photo: Juha Tanhua

Nature supports exercise

While Lahti is known as a sports city, nowhere near all its inhabitants get enough exercise. According to the calculations of UKK Institute, a centre for health promotion research, the costs of a sedentary lifestyle are approximately 34 million euros in Lahti. In the calculations, 76% of Lahti residents were estimated to exercise less than recommended, which, according to a 2017 assessment, corresponds to the share of Finns leading a sedentary lifestyle25.

Since nature supports exercise in many ways, the region has invested in nature-based activities, for example, in the GoGreenRoutes project. As part of GoGreenRoutes, LAB University of Applied Sciences is investigating how the type of environment affects exercise and health26.

Research indicates that nature increases physical activity by motivating people to exercise27. Walking along uneven forest trails improves muscular strength overall and helps develop and maintain balance. It is easier to accumulate exercise outdoors, as a workout performed in the natural environment feels less strenuous than in an urban or indoor environment28.

Exercise and sustainable transport options, such as cycling, also play an important role in achieving the carbon neutrality targets of Lahti. A project conducted by LAB University of Applied Sciences focuses on promoting cooperation among cycling tourism operators and developing products and services that support cycling tourism29. The Mankeli electric city bikes provided by the City of Lahti offer an easy option for covering short distances – also in hilly terrain – and reduce the need for a car in the summer30.

Nature for all – enjoying nature with a mobility impairment

Various mobility and functional impairments may prevent people from spending time in the outdoors, even though nature could have a very beneficial impact on their wellbeing31. The Nature for All project of LAB University of Applied Sciences sought to promote nature tourism among people with impairments and disabilities in the Päijät-Häme and Kanta-Häme regions by developing service providers’ accessibility competence. The results included product cards to help nature tourism operators design nature tourism services for special groups32.

Virtual Outdoors Finland, a joint project involving LAB University of Applied Sciences and other universities of applied sciences, piloted various digital solutions for marketing nature tourism33. Innovations such as these might be useful for promoting wellbeing, for example, when the outdoors are not an option.

Beneficial exposure to diverse natural microbes is also possible in an indoor environment. A study conducted in Lahti and Tampere as part of the ADELE2 project found that air-circulating indoor green walls in office facilities increased the number of beneficial microbes on the employees’ skin34. It is important to support everyone’s opportunity to exercise in nature, but it is equally important to introduce wellbeing into people’s daily lives through nature-based solutions.

The importance of supporting and strengthening nature connection

Despite there being plenty of evidence of nature’s beneficial impacts on wellbeing, these impacts are not equitably distributed among the population. A study of young people in Lahti, conducted as part of the NATUREWELL project, found that young people with an immigrant background from African and Middle Eastern countries and Afghanistan spend less time in nature than native Finns35.

Nature connection also appears to be polarised: while some young people have a close connection with nature, for others, nature is far from an integral part of life16,36. According to a survey conducted among young people in Lahti, adolescents from highly educated and financially well-off families spend time in nature more often than others15.

 Such results must be considered seriously, especially in cities, and solutions must be devised for making nature’s wellbeing impacts equally accessible to all. Nature experiences can increase environmental responsibility, which is an important consideration in view of the global sustainability crisis37.

Early childhood education and schools play a crucial role in strengthening a child’s nature connection, and nearby forests are an important part of these efforts. In 2016–2017, the City of Lahti circulated a questionnaire to survey forests near schools and received responses from 43 educational institutions. In their responses to how they would like nearby forests to be developed, the schools proposed, for example, ready materials supporting nature education, training for the personnel, marked trails, and excursions led by a guide from outside their organisation38.

Mother-child clinics support families’ nature connection and sustainable lifestyles

Families play an important role in the development of children’s connection with nature. Mother-child clinics can support families from the outset of a new stage of life. In the Lahti region, sustainability thinking was integrated into the daily work of mother-child clinics in a project focusing on the ecological reconstruction of the healthcare and social welfare sector. The project was conducted by Kudelma, a network for comprehensive and sustainable systemic change, and Physicians for Social Responsibility39. The results of the work were also entered in the NEUKO database of the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare. From there, they can be adopted as measures for wider use across Finland40.

A great deal of information is available on sustainability and nature’s impact on wellbeing. The project on mother-child clinics demonstrated that nurses quickly grasped the significance of sustainability information in their work. Mother-child clinics, which by definition focus on promoting health, are an ideal place to initiate the ecological reconstruction of the healthcare and social welfare sector. Ideally, the entire sector should be involved in future efforts.

When seeking the best solutions for humans and the rest of nature, numerous viewpoints must be considered. This makes cross-disciplinary cooperation involving representatives of different disciplines and healthcare professionals crucially important. The Nature Step to Health programme strives to promote this cooperation to ensure that research and projects advance the wellbeing of humans and other species effectively and comprehensively in the Lahti region.

Research on the interconnectedness of humans and the rest of nature is still in its early stages, and it involves a great deal of uncertainty. This highlights the importance and global significance of the research conducted in Lahti.

photo: Juha Tanhua


author: Ursula Siltanen

translation to English: Tina Seidel

More information

Marju Prass, specialist

Coordination Unit of the Lahti University Campus, NatureStep to Health -program

+358 50 593 7788



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