Those of us that enjoy getting out in the great outdoors have experienced the restorative powers of nature first hand. Still, in most cases, a doctors visit nowadays is much more likely to yield a prescription for pills than a walk in the park.
There was a time, though, when doctors DID “prescribe” nature. In their book, “Your Brain on Nature”, Eva Selhub and Alan C. Logan explore the history of doctors prescribing nature for all kinds of ailments.
It began in the 19th century:
…sanitariums, or health resorts, gained popularity during the Industrial Revolution as concerns increased about overstimulation, noise, and smoke in cities. Doctors began prescribing their patients visits to more hospitable climes such as the Swiss Alps or the Adirondacks for afflictions from tuberculosis to mental health issues.”
By the 20th century, however, science had advanced enough so as to allow for other, more complex medicinal treatments to be tested in a lab setting. Suddenly what was once cured by sunshine and fresh air was being replaced by anxiety medication drugs and the like.
Fast-forward to the present day when a medical doctor suggesting a jaunt in the woods might be seen as less than professional. We want a “real” cure, after all: meaning something with scientific evidence to back it up. But while it’s true that it used to be nearly impossible to prove the health benefits of nature, modern day science now has the ability to test such theories.
An example comes out of a study from The Japanese Society of Forest Medicine’s Shinrin yoku plan, an effort to promote health through short visits to the forest otherwise known as “forest bathing.” By dividing the participants into half and having one group take daily walks through the city to the lab and the other group take daily walks through nearby woods, scientists were able to compare the before and after health of one group against the other. What the studyrevealed was remarkable:
The results of studies performed on the physiological effects of Shinrin-yoku show that forest environments could lower concentrations of cortisol, lower pulse rate, lower blood pressure, increase parasympathetic nerve activity, and lower sympathetic nerve activity compared with city settings. The results of the physiological measurements suggest that Shinrin-yoku can aid in effectively relaxing the human body, and the psychological effects of forest areas have been correlated with the various physical environmental factors of forest. The studies of Shinrin-yoku provide valuable insights into the relationship between forests and human health.”
Similarly, a study from the universities of Kansas and Utah found that hiking through wilderness for three days improved scores on creativity tests by 50 percent.
The wellness industry is getting on board, too, with more and more trained professionals helping people gain access to the health benefits of nature. Therapeutic certification programs are popping up across the country offering Forest Therapy Wellness Retreats within a spa setting.
Even doctors practicing Western Medicine are beginning to come back around to the practice. WebMD reports:
Health care providers are also giving their patients “nature prescriptions” to help treat a variety of medical conditions, from post-cancer fatigue to obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes.”
And so it is clear that what was once seen as a simple walk outside continues to evolve into a more evidence-based and expert-led avenue for health and healing.
Doctors Prescribing a Walk in the Park via Slate.com
Forest Bathing via Spafinder
Natures Prescription via WebMD
Effect of phytoncide from trees on human natural killer cell function via US National Library Of Medicine
Could Exposure to Everyday Green Spaces Help Treat ADHD? Evidence from Children's Play Settings via Wiley Online Library
Your Brain on Nature via Amazon