Once upon a time, recommending exposure to nature as a clinical therapy for better mental health would have been laughed off. Intuitively, most of us know that spending time in the great (or even average) outdoors is good for us. From a stroll outside to clear our minds or spending a sunny weekend on the beach, we’ve all experienced the healing power nature can have on the mind.
However, we’re no longer reliant on personal experience as a form of evidence; there’s been an increasing amount of research linking time spent outdoors (particularly in green spaces) to better mental and physical health. The practice of shinrin yoku, or ‘forest bathing', is an integral part of Japanese culture, with the Forest Agency of Japan promoting the practice for better health since the 1980s.
Surprisingly, it’s not just the exercise that appears to contribute to lower stress. An early study undertaken in 1995 by Yoshifumi Miyazaki, a researcher at Chiba University in Japan and forest therapy expert, found that people who spent 40 minutes walking in a cedar forest experienced lower cortisol (the stress hormone) levels than when they spent 40 minutes walking in a temperature and humidity-controlled lab. The participants also experienced lower levels of mood issues like tension, depression, anger, fatigue, and confusion when they took part in the forest walk as opposed to the laboratory one.
While most of us aren’t blessed with an expansive cedar tree forest in close proximity, exposure to green spaces has been linked to better mental wellbeing. A 2019 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Health Research showed that spending a mere 20 minutes in a green space can be of benefit. The study focused on adults visiting urban parks and found that a 20-minute park visit showed a marked improvement in participants’ subjective wellbeing and life satisfaction, regardless of whether or not they exercised while there.
While the concept of forest bathing may have been a foreign one when it was introduced in the 1980s, doctors of today have embraced the concept. Dr. Robert Zarr, a pediatrician based in Washington, actually writes his patients dedicated ‘nature prescriptions’, with scripts prescribing things like taking a walk in the park or spending time outside playing a sport.
The jury is still out on exactly what it is about nature that makes it so beneficial for mental health, however, the key to its mood-boosting properties is finding a green space or part of nature that appeals to your desires and personality type. Those who crave a sense of social connection might enjoy an urban park that provides more opportunities to interact with others, while those who use nature to escape from the world may find more success with a hike in a national park or nature reserve.
So, to leave you with an unofficial prescription; reap the therapeutic effects of nature by spending at least 30 minutes a day in a green space, whether it be a visit to the local park, stroll in a leafy neighbourhood, or even cultivating a backyard garden.