More and more doctors are prescribing a ‘dosage’ (120 mins) of nature to treat a range of conditions. But is it actually beneficial, and how can you get outdoors more? Outforia has teamed up with an Environmental Psychologist and Wellbeing Consultant to discuss the benefits of getting outdoors every day.
Medical research from around the world demonstrates that a Green Prescription can deliver physiological and psychological benefits for patients, even if the exact mechanisms by which these accrue are not yet fully understood. The evidence also shows that doctors are ready and willing to give Green Prescriptions and that an effective partnership with other providers is required.
Gaby Pilson, Outdoor Educator at Outforia comments:
Do you agree with this, and why? Do you think it could actually be beneficial? How?
I do agree that a Green Prescription can provide patients seeking medical treatment and otherwise healthy individuals with various physiological and psychological benefits.
Multiple studies, including a major 2018 study from the US and a 2019 study from the University of Milan have identified a range of different benefits that outdoor recreation can have on our well being.
That being said, while I do believe that there are some physicians and mental health experts who are willing to give Green Prescriptions, I believe more outreach and education are necessary to make this practice the norm, rather than the exception.
But, I do think that physicians (particularly general providers) will need to build relationships with other health and outdoor professionals who are better versed in the benefits of outdoor recreation to truly support the needs of their patients when writing Green Prescriptions.
How do you think being in nature helps people in terms of physical and mental health?
The benefits of spending time in nature are well-known, even if we don’t really understand the causal relationship between the outdoors and our physical and mental health on a physiological level.
From a physical well-being perspective, the benefits of outdoor recreation are similar to what you’d find with any other type of exercise or physical activity – healthier body mass composition, lower blood pressure, and an overall decreased risk of major health issues, such as heart disease and diabetes. What sets spending time in nature apart from working out in a gym, however, is the mental health benefits that come from being in open spaces with fresh air, wildlife, and foliage.
Indeed, studies have found that hiking and other outdoor pursuits can help people feel less depressed, angry, or confused, while others have found a direct link between spending time outside and positive recovery rates and well-being in those with mental health issues.
Many people wouldn’t class themselves as an ‘outdoorsy’ person. Would you still recommend people getting outdoors to exercise?
Even if you don’t feel like an outdoorsy person, it’s still a great idea to get outside for some exercise each day. The reality is that you don’t need to spend four months trekking across Alaska to experience the benefits of the outdoors.
Rather, you’re likely to get many of the same great mental and physical benefits of nature just by going on a short walk in your neighborhood or by opting to cycle to work instead of driving or taking public transport. Plus, the more time you start to spend outside each day, the more likely you are to find that you actually do enjoy the outdoors – the key is to find a way to spend time outdoors that works for your interests and needs.
What is the difference between doing exercise inside vs getting outside? Can it be less or more effective?
It’s impossible to say that either exercising indoors or exercising outdoors is better than the other because it really all depends on what your goals are.
For folks who are training for a specific sport or physical pursuit, you may find that it’s easier to create tailored, high-intensity workouts in an indoor space, such as a gym. Though if you can take some portions of your workouts outside, then you can also get the benefits of outdoor activity without affecting your training plan.
However, people who are simply looking to exercise and maintain a healthy lifestyle often find that they enjoy running and walking outdoors more than they enjoy doing so in a gym. Although this phenomenon isn’t well-studied, it’s likely due to the fact that taking your exercise outside allows you to get the mental health benefits of being in nature.
Is there a seasonal difference in spending time outside? For example, would you feel better after a walk/hike in winter than in summer, etc?
As far as I’m aware, there’s no research into whether there’s a seasonal difference in how we feel after walking or hiking in the winter or the summer. But, there was one study done in 2013 in Japan that found the same mental and physical benefits of walking in the winter as we expect in the summer months.
I suspect any difference in how people feel after a winter and summer hike is more a factor of perception than anything inherent in the seasons themselves.
Folks who are less accustomed to the cold often feel more exhausted at the end of a day of winter hiking, though this can often be attributed to a lack of proper hydration and the extra energy your body expends while trying to keep you warm in the winter, that is why it is basically important to wear the right layers of clothing.
With colder, rainy months here for many, how would you say people can find the motivation to spend time walking and exercising outside?
The key to staying motivated during the colder months of the year is to be reasonable with your expectations. If you’re not too keen on spending hours outside in the cold and the rain, that’s okay!
Instead of trying to continue your normal summertime activities into the winter, try to find things that you actually enjoy doing during the colder months of the year. Perhaps running in the cold isn’t your thing, but maybe you can go on a walk in the park during your lunch break instead.
If you’re the type of person that thrives on routine, try to build a schedule for yourself instead and incorporate friends and family into your plans too. It can be hard to get motivated to go outside for a last-minute weekend hike if the weather looks dreary, but if it’s something you’ve planned on for the last week with your friends, you’re more likely to stick to it.
Getting outside during these difficult times is all about making it a priority and part of your daily routine. Here are some of my top tips:
- Commit to a daily schedule. These days, a lot of us are working from home or are out of work completely. Creating a schedule for yourself where you commit to getting outside for a hike, run, or walk, for 30 minutes or an hour a day. Having a schedule can help give you the routine you need to stay motivated to get outdoors during the pandemic.
- Look Local. We often think that outdoor adventures can only happen in far-off places. But, there’s plenty of adventure to be had outside, even if you live in the middle of a city. Seek out local green spaces, national parks, and bike trails where you can get some fresh air near your home. If possible, plan your day so you can visit these places at off-peak times to maintain physical distancing with others.
- Think Outside the Box. Whether you like to hike, climb, paddle, ski, or bike, there are a whole lot of ways to enjoy the great outdoors. If you’re feeling like you can’t get out as much as you’d like or that your recreation options are limited, consider other types of outdoor activity that make sense for your current situation. For example, try birdwatching, take a picnic to a local park (as regulations allow), or go stargazing. Adventure comes in many forms.
What activities would you suggest for those going into lockdown or are spending more time alone yet still want to get outside in nature?
If you’re going into lockdown and you’re concerned about being able to spend time outside, the good news is that you have some options.
First things first, if local regulations allow, create a schedule that allows you to take a walk in your local park for an hour each day. It might not seem like much, but being outside and around people (socially distanced, of course) can make a big difference to your well being.
If you can’t get out of the house or your apartment and to a park, it’s time to get creative. You can try to set aside time each day for birdwatching or cloud spotting from your balcony or backyard just for a bit of fresh air.
Alternatively, in places where restrictions are really tight, consider turning your home into a serene nature retreat, instead. Keeping the windows open as long as the weather allows and sprucing up your home with plants can help you feel calmer and more relaxed, according to research from the University of Washington.
Lee Chambers, Environmental Psychologist, and Wellbeing Consultant Outdoor Educator comments:
While ecotherapy is relatively new in terms of being a prescribed activity, there is a body of evidence formed over the past 50 years that highlights the numerous benefits of exposure to natural environments.
Studies have shown that being in nature can increase attention, lower blood pressure, provide resilience against stressors, promote mindfulness, and improve our circadian rhythmicity.
It has been shown to have a positive impact on mild depression, chronic stress, and sleep difficulties. While the impact of the benefits is different depending on an individual’s overall lifestyle, there is a strong case for prescribing nature, especially for those who are struggling with certain mental health conditions, and those who are looking to boost their mental wellbeing.
Could you see a possible future of ‘nature prescriptions’ widespread? How do you think patients would respond and what could it look like?
From a health innovation perspective, I can certainly see an increased uptake of nature prescriptions as we look at health and wellbeing in a more interconnected way. The input age we live in has changed how we access nature and this is especially prevalent in younger generations, with a consideration that some children may effectively be suffering from Nature Deficit Disorder.
As for how patients would respond, I feel there would be certain challenges from one angle, as we as a culture are increasingly used to medication-based solutions, and accessing nature requires considerably more intention than taking a tablet.
Conversely, it can also be seen as a challenge, to get out and explore and find innovative ways to feel better and enjoy novel experiences that boost your mood and your mind. As for delivery, I would expect prescription of a structured activity that is free and easily accessible.
Do you think it could actually be beneficial? How?
While differing individuals will garner the benefits, it certainly challenges and disrupts the normal expectation of a medical intervention that doesn’t require any effort on the patient’s side. There is a feeling of agency and appreciation when you improve your health through your own intentional actions, and this can lead to consistent behavior change.
It can also lead to a newfound appreciation for the outdoors and exploring, creating new opportunities for individuals. However, there will also be challenges, as something as simple as poor weather can significantly decrease human engagement.
Certain outdoor activities do require a baseline level of equipment, and a large part of the success will relate to creating an engaging and compelling delivery of the benefits and impact on patients, and a willingness to meet them where they currently are.
Do you think people would be more likely to get outside if prescribed or told by a professional?
We certainly have a layer of credibility and trust as professionals, and many people turn to those they see as experts for advice. If prescribed, an individual now has permission to go and engage in nature, and this can be powerful and help the action of going to be closer to a patient’s comfort zone.
At the same time, most people know cognitively that nature is good for our health and wellbeing, and with the speed of society, awareness of how important nature is to us as humans often falls down the list of priorities. There will still be individuals who see nature prescription as cost-cutting, as transfer of authority for health behaviors onto them, and they are likely to be more resistant to embracing change.
How do you think being in nature helps people in terms of physical and mental health?
We evolved in natural environments, and these environments ignite all our senses. Physically, it reduces our blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension, and cortisol levels.
Mentally, it can improve our mood, reduce anxiety, create a feeling of serenity and relaxation, and make us feel more connected, to both nature and fellow humans. With a positive impact on a variety of physiological and psychological processes, nature is a multifaceted form of medicine that is underutilized.
Do you think lockdown and the current situation has made more people get outside to exercise? Why do you think this is?
Lockdown has had the impact of restricting indoor activities and causing us to have to spend an increased time in our domestic environments. Both a feeling of needing to get out and the government’s advice of being able to leave to exercise, have caused many people to go and explore the nature they have on their doorstep.
At the same time, the restriction of many activities has caused many to be grateful for the nature they have that is accessible, and people who were not normally engaged in outdoor activities have started to find novel ways to enjoy nature. And with lockdowns continuing through the colder months, I have been speaking about just how powerful friluftsliv can be as we embrace not just nature but the amazing sights and senses of winter too.
The Japanese practice shinrin-yoku (森林浴), which translates as “forest bathing.”
There is no exercise involved, not even bathing – just the act of being in the outdoors. Being in nature for mere hours a week benefits billions of humans in just as many different ways, from the meditative to the scientific.