Taking a refreshing stroll has always been considered healthy, but now medical communities are giving it a closer look. Doctors in Shetland, Scotland, are beginning to prescribe out-doors excursions as treatment for many chronic or debilitating illnesses.
Late last year, doctors of the Shetland Islands were authorized by the archipelago’s health board, NHS Shetland, to issue “nature prescriptions.” The scripts would list trips into a natural environment, such as hiking, bird-watching, and combing the beach for seashells, as means of treatment. General practitioners believe these outdoor activities are beneficial to cases of mental illness, diabetes, heart disease, and stress, among other conditions.
Patients given a “natural prescription are provided with calendars scheduled with activities and maps with walks drawn out by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. The society also offers information on the flora and fauna of the assigned routes so patients can learn something of the grounds they explore.”
While “nature prescriptions” have been found to be beneficial, NHS Shetland is not suggesting Western medical treatment has been ineffective. Dr. Chloe Evans, a GP who spearheaded the program at Scalloway Health Center, says they are designed to supplement standard pharmaceutical treatments. She said in a statement:
“There are millions of different ways of doing medicine but we very much try to involve people in their own health, and people really like being empowered,” Evans said. “People are always thinking at some level about their diet or exercise or stopping smoking but finding out what works for them is the key. The beauty about Shetland is it has this fantastic wild landscape.”
The natural world can have an immediate and noticeable effect on the body, which in turn can positively influence our mental health as well. Pediatrician Nooshin Razani, of UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital, Oakland, explained to East Bay Express some of the physical effects that occur in the human body after simply stepping under tree cover:
“Within minutes your breath rate is lower, your heart rate is slower, and your blood pressure decreases and then it plateaus,” she explained. “You sweat less. Within 15 to 20 minutes you perform better on cognitive tests. Your concentration is what they call restored or reset. Children with ADHD have improved attention spans. Stress hormones are reduced, inflammatory markers are reduced, and glucose levels go down.”
It is unclear exactly what in the natural environment can elicit such a positive response in our body chemistry. Currently, experts believe it has something to do with airborne compounds that have antibacterial and antifungal properties, known as phytoncides. It appears that when we inhale these phytoncides, they help bolster our white blood cells — in some cases by nearly 50%.
Doctors and hospitals around the UK have already been encouraged to adopt this new form of supplemental health care by the Centre for Sustainable Healthcare in Oxford. Helen Moncrieff, the area manager for RSPB Scotland, is hopeful that the practice will catch on.
“We would like this to be picked up by other areas or health boards. There is so much evidence that nature is good for us, and this is a simple way to get people outdoors and experiencing nature in a city or a wilder place like Shetland,” she said.