Enjoying Nature – Now A Prescribed Treatment?

mtn stream300It’s hard to disagree with the suggestion that enjoying nature on a pleasant day is a reliable boost to your mood, now it might also be the advice that comes straight from your doctor. These days the benefits of nature… of filling your lungs with fresh air, feeling the breeze on your skin as you take in what’s around you are making their way into the health care advice of many doctors. It’s called ecotherapy (or sometimes nature therapy, earth-centered therapy or green therapy) and comes from book of that name.

Ecotherapy not only helps your mood, it is also known to ease anxiety and stress, lift symptoms of depression. What’s more, it’s free… in terms of costs and side effects. This approach has also been used to help conditions like post cancer fatigue, diabetes, high blood pressure and, of course, obesity.

Before you dismiss it out of hand, as some new age nonsense, think about this. Man has evolved in harmony with nature for millions of years, and this has likely hard-wired us with a need to interact with the environment around us… air, water, plants and other creatures.

Over the last 200 years we’ve become more and more removed from nature… too busy to appreciate the beauty of our natural surroundings. Today, over half the population of the world lives in cities.

There are academic programs that offer certificates in ecotherapy. This program includes animal assisted therapy, horticultural therapy, stress management and dealing with eco-anxiety. Even so there’s no body of evidence that backs up the claims of the benefits of this form of treatment for any condition.

Despite this, being outdoors is still considered part of an overall healthy lifestyle.

Something else to consider – science has long understood that exposure to sunlight can help depression, as we’ve seen with Seasonal Affective Disorder. Recent work is telling us more. A 2007 study concluded that a walk outside cut depression in over 70% of the study participants. All it took was five minutes… outside in nature to bring a lift to mood, motivation and even self-esteem.

Other experts have been recommending time outdoors for breast cancer survivors. For 30-40% of these patients, persistent fatigue is a real problem after treatment, but to help deal with this fatigue, doctors are advising patients to follow an encompassing program that includes suggestions for improving your diet, being more active, managing stress and bringing nature into the healing process. So if you’re a gardener who’s too tired to enjoy your former favorite pastime, start with just five minutes pulling weeds and build from there. Non gardeners can find a local park and take a leisurely walk… combining exercise with a peaceful, enjoyable setting.

Then there’s this, a Japanese study carried out in 2010 found that parts of the environment like the smells associated with woodland, running water, and forest scenery can offer relaxation and lower stress levels. Those participating in the research showed lower levels of stress hormone cortisol, a reduced pulse rate and reduced blood pressure.

Even kids can get in on the benefits of nature to the body. Many children are dealing with type 2 diabetes or are simply overweight. Generally these children spend little time outdoors. The recommendation is for the whole family to visit a natural area for a walk. The feedback from the students and their families has so far been good.

Major medical groups call for kids to get at least an hour of physical activity each and every day. Experts in ecotherapy are simply suggesting that some part of that be outside… in the fresh air and sunshine.

Even those in the inner city can benefit from enjoying nature. Walk more. Find a playground. And always, enjoy nature safely – keep an eye on the weather, go with someone (or leave details of where you are and when you expect to be back), wear the right clothing and shoes, and be aware of your surroundings.

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