A growing body of evidence suggests that interaction with nature can boost health and wellness and improve quality of life. At Ecosulis, Biodiversity and Health is one of our core services.
Well well well
Many of us already know that a stroll in the woods or along a beach can stimulate feelings of calmness and contentment. Being in nature, or even viewing scenes of nature, reduces anger, fear and stress.
Exposure to nature not only makes us feel better emotionally, it also contributes to our physical wellbeing, reducing blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension and the production of stress hormones. According to a growing number of scientific studies, it may even reduce mortality.
UK doctors are now even prescribing doses of nature to their patients. Last year NHS Shetland rolled out what have been billed as “nature prescriptions” to help treat a range of afflictions, including high blood pressure, anxiety and depression. And more recently, the Gloucestershire Clinical Commissioning Group teamed up with the Gloucestershire Local Nature Partnership and the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust to offer similar prescriptions to patients undergoing cardiac rehabilitation.
A new, large-scale study conducted by the University of Exeter Medical School, people who spend at least 120 minutes in nature a week are significantly more likely to report good health and higher psychological wellbeing than those who remain completely disconnected from nature. However, no such benefits were found for people who visited natural settings such as parks, forests and beaches for less than 120 minutes a week.
As well as the two-hour threshold, the study found that the 120 minutes of nature could be clocked up on a single visit or several shorter visits. It also found that the threshold applied equally to both men and women and older and younger adults, across different occupational and ethnic groups, among those living in both rich and poor areas, and even among people with long term illnesses or disabilities.
UK doctors are beginning to prescribe “doses” of nature to patients. Photo: Daniel Allen.
A walk in the woods
Today we spend an unhealthy amount of time isolated from nature. In 2001, a survey in the United States found that the average American spends 87 percent of his or her time indoors. In Japan, a country where terms for commuter hell (tsukin-jigoku) and death by overwork (karoshi) are in common parlance, the need for shinrin-yoku – or forest therapy – may be even more acute.
Shinrin-yoku is now catching on fast in the West. But it’s nothing new in Japan, with roots in venerable Shinto and Buddhist practices. While the old-fashioned term “a walk in the woods” still applies in most other countries, shinrin-yoku has been making its way into the Japanese vernacular since a government agency coined the expression in the early 1980s.
“Shinrin-yoku is a bit more than just walking in the forest,” explains Sahoko Ma, a yoga teacher and regular forest bather from Tokyo. “To get the full benefit, practitioners must engage with nature using all five senses.”
To many it seems obvious that a walk in the woods can be good for body and mind. But a growing body of research is now backing this up with science, with studies demonstrating that shinrin-yoku can lower blood pressure, heart rates and stress hormones, and improve memory. One of the biggest benefits may come from breathing in chemicals called phytoncides. Given off by trees and plants, these have been shown to stimulate the activity of cancer-fighting white blood cells.
“The forest is the therapist,” says Sahoko Ma. “You’ll never look at trees the same way again after you’ve tried shinrin-yoku.”
Studies have demonstrated that shinrin-yoku can lower blood pressure, heart rates and stress hormones, and even improve memory. Photo: Daniel Allen.
Biodiversity and health
Health is our most basic human rights and one of the most important indicators of sustainable development. At the same time, the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity is key to the continued functioning of ecosystems at all scales, and for the delivery of the nature-based services that are essential for human health. There are many opportunities for synergistic approaches that promote both biodiversity conservation and the health of humans.
Open spaces and parks are generally designed for either biodiversity or recreation. Biodiversity-focused parks typically provide limited access to people to minimise disturbance, while recreational parks are overmanaged and provide limited biodiversity gains.
Ecosulis carried out biodiversity and health work in London’s Kennington Park in 2015.