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Nature Rx

By Kate Thompson, Safina Center “Kalpana Chawla ‘Launchpad’ Fellow”

I was about to turn off the campus road and onto the main highway when I saw the red and blue lights flash in my review mirror. My stomach dropped. What had I done wrong? I tried to review in my mind the last three minutes I spent rolling from the faculty parking lot to the edge of campus, at barely 20 miles per hour.

The police officer was polite, informing me I had missed a stop sign– one I’d like to note that I’ve successfully stopped at every day for the past five years. “Is everything okay?” He asked.

I apologized and said I had been feeling very anxious about my dissertation; embarrassed, I admitted my mind had been in my thesis and not on the road. He let me off with a warning and unexpected assignment: “Hey, if you’re very stressed or nervous, go for a walk in the fresh air. Get outside and spend some time in nature, after all it’s a beautiful day. Promise me you’ll go for a walk if you’re anxious next time before you drive?” I was relieved and surprised: a police officer had just given me homework to spend more time outside.

The lake at prospect park. Photo: Kate Thompson

Although he might not have realized, this policeman’s advice was pretty well grounded in scientific literature. Numerous studies have shown time outside increases mood and reduces stress levels, lowering blood pressure. It can alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety as well as aid those suffering from degenerative cognitive illnesses such as Alzheimer’s and dementia. Large-scale reviews of literature have found that access to greenspace helps not only with chronic conditions, but day-to-day stress management and productivity. Spending timing in nature exercising may lead to increased concentration on complex tasks (perhaps driving, for example). Nature may even have a profound effect on our physical health; one study showed that just a view of a natural landscape from one’s hospital room can decrease, on average, the length of a post-operative hospital stay.

The effective “dosage” of a nature prescription still isn’t known (although some research suggests 20-30 minutes, three days a week, leads to positive results); it’s hard to run clinical trials when all the research takes place far beyond the walls of a clinic. There’s still a lot to study. The cognitive and neurobiological links between exposure to nature and mental health aren’t yet fully understood. The evidence for positive effects is quickly mounting, as public health initiatives promoting nature as medicine gain momentum.

During my research abroad in Madagascar, I cherished my hiking days. They were a way for me to forget the stress of community politics and project logistics and to simply be. Photo courtesy: Kate Thompson

According to a recent article in Outside Magazine, the number of nature-prescription programs in the United States has ballooned from just one in 2006 to more than 70 as of last year (America has been relatively slow to catch on, lagging behind the U.K. in nature-based wellness research and programming). These programs complement existing governmental initiatives, including Healthy Parks, Healthy People, in which the National Parks Service has teamed up with local health departments to spread awareness of nature’s role in physical and mental health. Public lands, from urban parks to national monuments, are increasingly tied to public health as places for mediation, exercise and outdoor stress relief.

How do these programs intersect with formal medical care? One tool, called Park Rx, allows primary care physicians to “prescribe” time in a park, helping the patient select green spaces near them to visit from a database of over 8,500 parks. Several hospitals and universities have adopted similar approaches. Perhaps during your next checkup, your doctor will ask you to fill your blood-pressure prescription at Duane Reade, and then head over to Central Park for your “outdoors Rx.”

Southwest corner of Central Park, looking east, NYC. Photo: Kate Thompson

Oliver Sacks once wrote, “I have lived in New York City for 50 years, and living here is sometimes made bearable for me only by its gardens.” Urban life, with the cacophony of car horns, crowded public transit lines, and near-constant traffic, is anxiety-provoking on a daily basis. Thankfully, studies show even in congested cities, nature retains its curative properties. Today is a cloudy but calm day in Brooklyn, where I’m fortunate enough to live within sight of Prospect Park and walking-distance of the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens. My car safely parked on a side street for the next couple of days, I think it’s time to shut my laptop and take the dog for a walk through the woods. After all, I promised the police officer. 

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