When my doctor wrote me a prescription for 10 minutes spent in nature each day, I thought she was joking. It turns out that an increasing number of medical professionals are prescribing ecotherapy—that is, contact with nature—for their patients. This could include anything from sports in outdoor environments to spending time with animals to hanging out in a park or garden. While sunshine and fresh air might seem like a crunchy response to illness, there’s actually a great deal of research that suggests nature has a positive impact on people’s mental and physical health. Studies suggest time in nature can improve the memory and cognitive function of people with depression. Group walks are also associated with a lower rate of depression, better mental well-being, and less perceived stress—in other words, people cope better with stressful life events when they intentionally spend time in nature with others.A number of studies have also suggested that gardens in hospitals have a number of health benefits for patients, particularly stress-reducing benefits. While there is a need for more research, nature-based therapy is often used to successfully treat people with stress-related illnesses. Ecotherapy also includes animal-assisted therapy. Those of us with furbabies can attest to their abilities to heal and comfort, and science suggests the same. For example, various studies show that animal-assisted therapy can aid in treating depression, helping people with post-traumatic stress disorder, and comforting those with dementia.
But why is ecotherapy good for us? And how exactly does it work?
While ecotherapy experts can’t pinpoint exactly why ecotherapy works, there are a few well-supported theories. In a meta-study, leading ecotherapy expert Craig Chalquist attributes ecotherapy to the fact that we’ve evolved to exist in natural environments. Remaining in urban areas is thus like taking an animal out of their natural habitat—we don’t adapt to it easily. “Disconnection from the natural world in which we evolved produces a variety of psychological symptoms that include anxiety, frustration, and depression,” he writes. “These symptoms cannot be attributed solely to intrapsychic or intrafamilial dynamics.” In a world where we’re often looking at screens and processing a lot of stimulating information, nature can provide us with a much-needed break. Staring at your screen all day can be overwhelming, and a few minutes spent in the garden or park can give you time to relax and recharge. Since most of us are stuck in offices for the majority of the day, it’s pretty hard to incorporate more nature into our weekdays. If you’d like to harness the de-stressing power of nature during the day, try some of the following ecotherapy activities:
- If possible, get outside during your lunch break. Instead of eating lunch at your desk or in the office break room, head to a nearby park or walk down a leafy avenue. Even a breather on the balcony or in a garden is a great way to get some quality time with nature!
- Get some houseplants to spruce up your work area. Indoor plants are shown to have a positive effect on our well-being. A recent study suggested that potted plants have a positive impact on job satisfaction, too.
- Try to spend a little time in nature before or after work. If possible, try walking or cycling to work. If not, have your morning coffee while sitting in a natural environment or read a book in the park after work.
According to many ecotherapists, ecotherapy should also include giving back to nature. This can be therapeutic in itself. For example, it can be super satisfying to work on a garden and see your handiwork come to life, and cleaning up a park can give you a sense of accomplishment. For this reason, activities like plogging (that is, picking up litter while jogging) can be beneficial to your health and the environment. If you’re interested in giving back to nature while enjoying the benefits of ecotherapy, try activities like beach cleanups, working in a community garden, planting trees, or tending to a small indoor succulent garden. Want to get out and enjoy nature with others? Plan a hike or commit to taking your pup for a walk at least twice a week. Don’t have a dog? Meet up with a friend or neighbor who does. Recreation.gov and the National Audubon Society also host excellent resources for finding inspiring outdoor destinations near you.