Doctors around the globe are working to change the way people manage a host of chronic issues, from anxiety to high blood pressure, and Scottish doctors have decided to recommend a surprisingly simple treatment that’s right outside our doors.
Primary care doctors in the United Kingdom’s Shetland Islands have started prescribing time in nature to patients. They see hiking, bird watching and combing the beach for shells as great options to enhance regular medical treatment for conditions from diabetes to hypertension to stress, according to the Guardian.
A local nature conservation charity, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, or RSPB, in Scotland and the local health board in the Shetlands started the partnership with doctors and even created a calendar of outdoor activities that the doctors could prescribe patients. They call the initiative “Nature Prescriptions.”
“There is overwhelming evidence that nature has health benefits for body and mind,” Karen MacKelvie, a community engagement officer for RSPB Scotland, told the BBC. “[D]espite many doctors using the outdoors as a resource to combat ill-health, far fewer recommend the same strategy to their patients. So, we saw an opportunity to design a leaflet that helps doctors describe the health benefits of nature and provides plenty of local ideas to help doctors fire-up their patients’ imaginations and get them outdoors.”
Dr. Chloe Evans, a general practitioner at Scalloway Health Centre in Scalloway, Shetland, was happy to take part in the initiative. “I want to take part because the project provides a structured way for patients to access nature as part of a non-drug approach to health problems,” she told the BBC.
Thankfully, the calendar is available in a PDF format that can be easily accessed online at HealthyShetland.com. It features tasks for each month of the year, including dining with your family outdoors, “appreciating” a cloud and providing a nestbox and nest materials for birds,
One task in August reads, “Turn o’er a rock and see what you see.”
Researchers have been studying the connection between nature and health for years — even before Richard Louv’s book about nature deficit disorder, “Last Child in the Woods,” popularized the idea. Here’s just one sample from the research that supports the nature prescriptions doctors in the Shetlands are now giving: A study conducted by Australia’s University of Queensland and the ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions found that those who visit parks 30 minutes a week are less likely to experience high blood pressure and poor mental health than those who don’t.
According to researcher Danielle Shanahan, “If everyone visited their local parks for half an hour each week there would be seven per cent fewer cases of depression and nine percent fewer cases of high blood pressure,” she said of the study.
Spending at least 30 minutes a week outdoors could also aid with reducing risks of heart disease, stress and depression, according to the study.
Considering the U.S. statistics on anxiety disorders, people in America might consider paying attention to this approach. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S. Forty million adults, or about 18.1 percent of the entire population, is affected every year, and yet only 36.9 percent of those suffering receive treatment.
Research shows a little bit of nature can go a long way. So, what do you say? Go on and get outside!