Spring Into Health
How does spending time in nature affect our brain, body, and overall health and wellbeing?
At CAMA, we often ask our clients to describe places that offer them respite and relief from the daily pressures of life, places that rejuvenate their spirits. The vast majority of people gravitate to places in nature such as beaches, parks, and hiking trails. Spending time in nature feels good. Scientists have measured many psychological and physiological health benefits associated with spending time in nature, confirming what we have intuitively known for so long. Ironically, this evidence is emerging at a time when we are more disconnected from nature than ever before.
Dr. Robert Zarr, a pediatrician at Unity Health, is the “physician champion” of DC Park Rx, an innovative park prescription program that encourages patients to visit parks throughout Washington, D.C. Zarr, along with public health students from George Washington University, created a database cataloging over 350 parks and green spaces throughout the city and linked this information to Unity’s electronic health record. The database allows Zarr to make concrete recommendations to his patients about accessing nature within a five-mile radius of their homes, and he literally scribbles instructions about where, when, and for how long on a prescription pad with the heading “Rx for Outdoor Activity.” Zarr hopes to gather data about the program’s effectiveness and his research has already shown that children with park prescriptions participate in 22 more minutes of physical activity each week. This program has gained national attention and has inspired the inception of at least 150 similar programs across the country.
How might rekindling our connection with nature help reverse negative health trends?
On the opposite coast, Dr. Nooshin Rzanai of UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital in Oakland, CA trains pediatricians to write park prescriptions for their patients and families. The design of the outpatient clinic reinforces this new approach with maps and images of nature integrated throughout the interiors. In an article for National Geographic, Rzanai explains, “we have transformed the clinical space so nature is everywhere. There are maps on the wall, so it’s easy to talk about where to go, and pictures of local wilderness, which are healing to look at for both the doctor and patient."
For some conditions, park prescriptions may be more effective and faster acting than prescription drugs. For example, studies have found that light treatment reduces feelings of depression after less than 2 weeks, as compared to the 4–6 weeks typical for the effective onset of antidepressant drugs. Happiness researcher, Lisa Nisbet of Trent University, keenly observes, “People underestimate the happiness effect of being outdoors. We don’t think of it as a way to increase happiness...We evolved in nature. It’s strange we’d be so disconnected."