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Rx: nature

In the Northwest, some patients are receiving a novel prescription from their doctor: a walk in the park. Physicians in Seattle are weaving nature therapy into clinical practice. There’s plenty of evidence to back this up for preventative health and to treat disease. Positive evidence exists for mood disorders, weight loss, heart disease, and dementia.

Journalist Richard Louv first raised awareness of “nature deficit disorder” among children diagnosed with depression, anxiety, and attention deficit (ADD). His landmark book, “Last Child in the Woods,” outlines how children benefit from direct nature experiences. Time outside supports healthy physical and emotional development, stimulating brain centers linked to observation, awareness, and focus. Nature therapy also balances stress hormones, including cortisol and norepinephrine.

Needless to say, many aspects of modern life push on stress hormone excess for adults and children. Public health experts find that children and adolescents are increasingly under distress. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), rates of adolescent depression & anxiety are on the rise since 2007. Prescribed nature therapy is an effective, safe, and low cost solution, with only positive side effects.

Dr. Atoosha Kourosh, a Seattle pediatrician, regularly recommends nature therapy to her patients. Although a prescription for the park may seem excessive, an actual prescription leads to better outcomes. Parents and kids are more likely to follow through if the recommendation comes from a trusted source. Dr. Kourosh works with a third party service, called Rx Park, to provide streamlined nature prescriptions. Rx Park is a nonprofit organization that helps doctors write meaningful prescriptions for nature therapy. Providers have access to up to date research for nature as medicine on the Rx Park website.

For obese and overweight patients, research finds sustained weight loss relative to time spent in nature. Urban areas with green-space access have lower rates of diabetes and obesity compared to areas without. Accessibility is key. Smart city planning that makes it easy to get into nature improves outcomes. Parks that have recreation programs further support balanced weight. One study estimated that if everyone had access to nearby outdoor recreation, 10% of people would shift from “overweight” to “healthy weight” across the country.

Supporting balanced weight has positive effects on heart health and overall longevity. Researchers in Japan study the practice called “Shinrin-yoku,” which translates to spending time in the forest. Dr. Bum-Jin Park and a team of researchers measured health outcomes before and after forest therapy sessions. They discovered that high blood pressure improved dramatically for patients, along with weight loss. For some patients, effects were comparable to hypertensive medications!

Time in nature benefits elderly patients with dementia as well. Dr. Margaret Calkins is a clinical scientist studying dementia. In 2008, she teamed up with colleagues to examine the effect of nature therapy. In particular, they were interested in sleep quality. For the study, 17 patients with dementia spent regular time outdoors over the seasons, compared to a control group that spent most of their time indoors. The outdoor group experienced vast improvement in sleep quality. Better sleep also led to less agitation in the nature group. If this were a pharmaceutical drug, the results would be groundbreaking!

Health science is catching up with what many traditional cultures already understand: that spending time outside is key to wellness. It is promising that patients are receiving prescription for nature therapy, as well as other lifestyle interventions, like diet, healthy sleep, and exercise. Although changing lifestyle requires more effort, these changes address the root causes of disease, supporting the body, mind, and spirit toward optimum wellness.

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