‘Nature prescriptions’ can improve physical and mental health: study
Imagine that your doctor prescribes a new treatment. It’s nice and nice, and you can have as much as you want. Possible side effects include spontaneous euphoria and being in a good mood. Not to mention, it’s free and available everywhere around you.
It is not a drug or any other medical procedure that your doctor has prescribed. Instead, it’s a ‘nature prescription’ – a recommendation to spend time in nature.
Researchers from UNSW Sydney reviewed international evidence on nature’s recipes and their ability to improve health. They analyzed 28 studies that tested nature’s prescriptions in real-world patients. This research was led by Professor Xiaoqi Feng from UNSW Medicine & Health and Professor Thomas Astell-Burt from the University of Wollongong, who are co-directors of the Population and Environmental Wellbeing Research Laboratory (PowerLab).
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The systematic review and meta-analysis, published today in The Lancet Planetary Health, found that nature’s recipes offered physical and mental health benefits. The patients had lower blood pressure, as well as lower depression and anxiety scores – and they had a higher daily step count.
“Evidence shows that nature’s recipes can help restore and build capacity for better physical and mental health. What we need now is to figure out how to make nature’s prescriptions happen sustainably for those people with high potential to benefit but who currently spend little time in nature,” said Prof. Feng.
Nature makes us healthier
Research shows that contact with nature reduces harm, including those from poor air quality, heat waves and chronic stress, while encouraging healthy behaviors such as socializing and physical activity. This can help prevent problems including loneliness, depression and cardiovascular disease.
“This study is built on a long-term research program we are doing, where we show that contact with nature – and especially trees – is really good for strengthening mental and physical health throughout our lives,” said Prof. Feng.
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Previous research by Prof. Feng show that living near certain types of green space can improve health. For example, in a study of almost 47,000 adults in New South Wales (NSW), those living in areas with 30 percent or more tree canopy reported better overall health and reduced psychological distress. This research has informed the City of Sydney’s $377 million strategy to achieve 40 per cent green cover by 2050.
“But even if you have a high-quality green space like a park nearby, it doesn’t mean that everyone will visit it and benefit from it,” said Prof. Feng.
“How can we encourage and enable people to (re)connect with nature?” This is where the idea of a recipe from nature is born.”
Taking prescriptions of the main nature
Nature’s prescriptions are emerging as an adjunct to standard medical care. For example, the UK government recently invested £5.77 million in a ‘green social prescription’ pilot program and Canada has a national nature prescription program.
In Australia, there is a growing public interest in nature’s recipes. A recent study of Australian adults led by Prof. Feng indicated that over 80 percent of people were open to the idea.
However, there are still no large-scale nature description programs in Australia. More research is needed to understand how nature’s prescriptions can be applied in our local context.
“So how long should nature’s prescription be? What should be in the prescription? How should we deliver it and by whom? These questions do not yet have stable answers,” said Prof. Feng.
“If we want nature recipes to become a national scheme, we really need to provide evidence.”
It is also important that nature’s recipes are accessible to all Australians. Previous research by Prof. Astell-Burt and Prof. Feng have shown that low-income communities are less likely to have access to green space. However, these communities are more at risk of chronic health issues such as type 2 diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease.
“We don’t want nature’s recipes to be a luxury item for the rich who already have access to beaches and lots of high-quality green spaces,” said Prof. Feng. “We want these benefits for everyone.”