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Tap into the power of nature

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If you go down to the woods today, you're in for a big surprise... a boost to your health! A dose of nature is the latest wellbeing prescription, says Sally Brown.

What could be more soul-restoring than a walk through a beautiful green landscape? Whether it be across rolling hills on a sunny day or in your favourite park on a cloudy morning, getting outside doesn’t just make you feel good – it could also give you a health boost. We now have scientific evidence which confirms what many of us have known instinctively for years; going for a walk somewhere green - or simply heading for the garden - when we need to relax or recharge improves wellbeing. In Japan and South Korea, it’s known as ‘forest-bathing’ or shinrin-yoku.[1] In Scandinavia, it’s called friluftsliv (pronounced free-luufts-leav, which roughly translates as ‘free, air, life’).[2] And in the UK, ‘ecotherapy’ as it’s known, is becoming renowned for its positive effect on physical health.         

An increasing body of research now shows that a prescription for ‘vitamin nature’ could help boost health and stave off disease. “For many thousands of years, humans have had regular engagement with nature, from their roles as hunter-gatherers and farmers to, in more recent times, actively seeking natural spaces to reduce the stress of modern life,” says Dr. Mike Rogerson, an ecotherapy researcher at the University of Essex. Some experts believe that too much time in an urban environment puts us at risk of ‘nature deficit disorder’, a similar condition to seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which can cause low energy levels and lack of concentration. [3]

Your green prescription
When you’re trying to decide where to spend your next holiday consider this: a two-day walking break in a woodland environment boosts the activity of ‘natural killer’ (NK) cells-, a key part of the immune system which fights cancer and other serious illness - for 30 days, according to Japanese research. By contrast, people who took a city break and did a similar amount of walking showed no boost in NK activity.[4] Spending time in a green environment has also been shown to reduce blood pressure and stress hormones, which is good news for heart health.[5] One theory is that trees - particularly pine trees - release phytoncides (anti-microbial organic compounds) into the atmosphere which, when inhaled, have a similar effect to aromatherapy on the body.

Did someone say ‘sunshine’?
Spending time outdoors encourages your body’s production of the ‘sunshine vitamin’ vitamin D -  essential for strong bones and a healthy immune system.]

Go for green
Of course, you can get a dose of nature by simply parking yourself on a bench and soaking up a fantastic view, but add an element of exercise, and you get a double-whammy effect. 

In one study, people exercising on a treadmill were shown images of either nature or urban scenes. Those shown the nature scenes had lower blood pressure ten minutes after the exercise than those shown pictures of urban scenes. “Exercise itself will lower blood pressure afterwards, but it seems you get an extra benefit from looking at a pleasant green scene,” says Dr Rogerson.

Outdoor exercise also has an effect similar to mindfulness, he says. “When you’re outdoors – running, for example - you have to concentrate on navigating a route, so the motor cortex kicks in to control muscle movements, distracting the thinking part of the brain which can be overactive. There seems to be two benefits – the instant boost in mood, followed by the longer-term effects on health. One of our latest studies, for instance, has found that a lunchtime walk somewhere green improves the quality of sleep you get that night, far more than a lunchtime walk in a built environment.”  

Green exercise also changes your behavior. “We know that you’re more likely to be sociable and talk for longer when exercising with a partner outdoors than indoors,’ says Dr Rogerson. Walking in a large shopping mall left 50 per cent of people feeling ‘tenser,’ according to one study, whereas 71 per cent of people who walked for the same length of time in a country park reported feeling less stressed afterwards.[6] And, lower stress means better health – out of control stress levels have been linked to digestion problems, skin conditions and heart disease. An added bonus is an instant hit of energy: 71 per cent said they felt less fatigued, and 53 per cent said they felt ‘more vigorous’ after a green walk, even though they had been exercising for 30 minutes.[7]

But there’s one caveat – make sure you feel safe. “If you don’t feel comfortable where you’re walking, it might cancel out the benefits,” advises Dr Rogerson.

A little goes a long way
If existing health issues or a busy lifestyle stop you getting outdoors as often as you would like, you can get a micro-dose of ecotherapy by bringing the outside in! Having houseplants in the home has been shown to reduce mental fatigue,[8] while research indicates that hospital patients with a view of something green recover better from surgery.[9] In a recent study from the University of Wales for example, a group of women recovering from breast cancer who created an ‘indoor garden’ in a bowl reported a greater boost in wellbeing than those who kept a journal or participated in an online support forum.[10] The wellbeing hit we get from simply looking at natural scenes could also explain why we all love nature programmes. “It does seem that the more immersed you are in the environment the better the benefits, but if you can’t do that, recreating that experience with pictures may also bring you some of these benefits without actually having to go there,’ says Dr Rogerson. 

Cheap, simple, accessible and good for both mind and body – could ecotherapy be the perfect health prescription? 



[1] http://www.shinrin-yoku.org

[2] http://www.natureandforesttherapy.org/uploads/8/1/4/4/8144400/friluftsliv_scandanavian_philosophy_of_outdoor_life.pdf

[3] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/wellbeing/fitness/have-got-nature-deficit-disorder-ditch-gym-time-get-outdoors/

[5] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2793341/

[6] https://www.mind.org.uk/media/273470/ecotherapy.pdf

[7] https://www.mind.org.uk/media/273470/ecotherapy.pdf

[8] http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0169204616302717

[9] https://mdc.mo.gov/sites/default/files/resources/2012/10/ulrich.pdf

[10] http://ecancer.org/journal/9/full/602-sowing-the-seeds-or-failing-to-blossom-a-feasibility-study-of-a-simple-ecotherapy-based-intervention-in-women-affected-by-breast-cancer.php


Sally Brown is a health and lifestyle writer and works as a psycho-dynamic counsellor.

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