LONDON (Reuters) - Parks, playing fields and forests greatly narrow health gaps between the rich and poor, and governments should do more to promote and invest in green areas, researchers said on Friday.
Earlier studies have linked living near green space to improved health but the findings in the journal Lancet show some of the impacts are bigger than thought, said Richard Mitchell, an epidemiologist who led the study.
"The size of the difference in the health gap is surprising and represented a much bigger effect than I had been expecting," Mitchell, a researcher at the University of Glasgow, said in a telephone interview.
"So the key message is green spaces are another tool for governments to combat this health gap between rich and poor."
Promoting outdoor recreation and boosting health can in the long run save on health care spending, he added.
Parkland and open space make a difference, Mitchell said, by helping people get rid of stress and allowing more physical activity -- both of which reduce risk of heart disease.
"This is the first time we have demonstrated that aspects of the physical environment can have an impact in such a good way," he said. "It is a combination of exercise and restoration."
Mitchell and colleagues looked at the health impact of parks, playing fields and forests by dividing England into five sectors based on the amount of adjacent green areas and then comparing death rates between rich and poor.
In the greenest areas, the health gap between the richest and poorest people as measured by death rates was about half as big as that in the least green areas.
Reporting by Michael Kahn, Editing by Maggie Fox and Dominic Evans