Doctors are recommending that many of their patients ditch the pills and take a walk in the park instead. Substantial research has been conducted on the therapeutic benefits of spending time in nature, which can help with health problems such as anxiety, depression and ADHD. Studies have found that spending time in green spaces also lowers cortisol levels and blood pressure.
Since October 5th doctors in Scotland can give nature prescriptions to their patients. It’s believed to be the first programme of its kind in the U.K., and comes with a year-long calendar of outdoor recommendations that tap into seasonal changes. Helen Moncrieff, area manager for RSPB Scotland, says that during the winter prescriptions will be “elemental”, with strong Atlantic winds being a strong feature.
Elsewhere in the UK, doctors are being encouraged to suggest that their patients take forest walks or get outside by the Centre for Sustainable Healthcare in Oxford. Its NHS Forest project aims to increase patients’ use of local parks and woodland near hospitals and health centres.
Although the programme is new to the UK, nature-based prescriptions have been pioneered in the US for several years by a non-profit called Park Rx America. The organisation works closely with managers of publicly accessible land and water, as well as directly with healthcare professionals, to “make it easy” to prescribe protected nature areas to their patients.
In Japan too, the trend of “forest bathing” has been around since the 1980s as a result of research carried out by Dr Qing Li, one of the world’s leading experts on the power of trees. As you walk in the forest, the sounds, colours and scents have a recognised therapeutic effect.
Evidence for the benefits of nature on mental and physical health is growing all the time. Research shows that if you spend 90 minutes of your day outside in a wooded area, there will be a decrease of activity in the part of your brain associated with depression. Spending time in natural environments not only increases serotonin levels, it also reduces aggression and boosts the immune system.
As more of the world’s population live in cities, people are spending less time in nature, with artificial systems disrupting the body’s natural equilibrium. E.O. Wilson, a biologist, theorist, and author, says that nature is part of our DNA. He explains: “We are hard wired to affiliate with the natural world and just as our health improves when we are in it, so our health suffers when we are divorced from it.”
Wilson goes on to say, “Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction.” This is not only encouraging more people to reconnect with nature by going outdoors, but also to bring nature inside. Naava, a Finnish health technology firm that specialises in the development of smart, active green walls, is one example of how companies are embracing this movement. Green walls not only work to purify the air we breathe, but can also help reduce stress and foster a connection to the natural world indoors.
As health chiefs report that Hundreds of thousands of people in England are hooked on prescription drugs, the move towards prescribing alternative treatments is set to soar. Not only is nature cost effective, prescriptions for antidepressants and sleeping tablets – used by a quarter of UK adults every year – could be drastically reduced by simple behavioural changes.
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