Research suggests the outdoors are good for your mental health

A growing body of research suggests that being outdoors can benefit mental health and boost memory, improve cardiovascular health and help us live longer. Additional studies find that nature lowers cortisol, the body’s stress hormone.

With that research in hand, doctors in parts of Canada have signed on to provide what are known as “nature prescriptions” for those living with mental illnesses and physical health conditions such as heart disease and diabetes.

Cadang holds dame’s rocket, a herbaceous weed, as wild garlic cooks on a portable gas burner. (Duncan McCue)

Last November, PaRx, an organization led by Dr. Melissa Lem, partnered with the B.C. Parks Foundation and health-care providers across British Columbia to offer patients nature prescriptions. Programs have also recently launched in Ontario and Saskatchewan.

“We leverage what we know about their health status, where they live, what they’re interested in to kind of create a customized nature prescription that they can fill,” Lem said. A standard prescription, she adds, is two hours of nature per week, at 20 minute or longer intervals.

Patients work one-on-one with a licensed health-care professional — a doctor, nurse or psychologist — to find the best solution for them. Nature prescriptions are often used in tandem with more traditional approaches to health care, and PaRx recommends that people first consult with a health-care provider if they have medical concerns.

Lem says her patients have responded positively to the idea. “I find that when I bring it up in the context of other lifestyle interventions — like healthy diet, like exercise and good-quality, adequate sleep — that they nod their heads like it’s intuitive to them.

Outdoors offered peace, but challenges continued

Cadang says that while he now has a good relationship with his parents, it was their expectations that compounded his depression.

“They wanted me to excel at school, so I couldn’t really go outside. I couldn’t really go anywhere aside from school,” he said.

Dr. Melissa Lem, a Vancouver-based family physician, has touted the benefits of ‘nature prescriptions’ for more than a decade. Now she leads PaRx, an organization that provides health-care professionals with information to prescribe the outdoors to patients. (Submitted by Melissa Lem)

The pressure wore on him, and his mind spiralled. He spent most of his time alone in his bedroom, ruminating about his situation.

At the height of his depression, Cadang says, he would spend 18 to 20 hours a day sleeping. At one point, he experienced suicidal thoughts. In 2018, Cadang was diagnosed with major depressive disorder.

“It seemed that no matter what I tried to do, I could never get anything right. I think the worst part was feeling that I really had no place in this world, and it felt like there was no escaping that,” he said.

Casting a line and tackle brought Cadang solace that had a healing effect. But as a college student, he still struggled with his mental health — and eventually faced a crisis, requiring medication and therapy.

Still, his counsellor at the time encouraged him to continue using nature as a medicine.

Stressed in the city

Lem has been advocating nature prescriptions for more than a decade. The family physician has a practice based in Vancouver, but she worked in rural British Columbia earlier in her career.

After that, she made a move to Toronto — a change that proved to her the benefits of the outdoors.

Her job in Toronto, working as an outpatient physician, was less stressful than her time in rural B.C., where she had to deal with emergencies and middle-of-the-night births. But in Toronto, she says she still struggled with the weight of her job.

“I was sitting in my apartment looking out at a tiny little square of sky with the CN Tower in the distance, hearing the streetcars rumble by and feeling incredibly stressed,” she told McCue.

“I thought, why am I so stressed out? And then I realized it was probably because I didn’t have as much access to nature.”

Becca Lovell, a researcher at University of Exeter in Truro, U.K., has studied the benefits of nature on humans. She says that while more research is needed, currently available evidence points toward positive outcomes.(Submitted by Becca Lovell)

Living among green spaces can also lead to a healthier life, according to Becca Lovell, a researcher at the University of Exeter medical school, based at its campus in Truro, England.

“The greener your living environment, probably the better it is for your health, in terms that it can ameliorate a number of environmental stresses — so noise, poor air quality, heat-island effect and so on,” she said.

“What we’re starting to do now is think [of] the so-what question — so how do we make environments healthier?” That could mean adding green spaces to certain areas, or encouraging better use of what’s already there.

And while more research into the topic is needed, Lovell argues that what is known points toward generally positive outcomes.

Along with PaRx, Lem’s work goes beyond jotting prescriptions on a notepad. She is also an advocate for improved access to high-quality green space as part of urban planning.

“A really important part of the work that we do is getting governments to realize that nature is an essential health service and to get them to enshrine policy into city building and city planning that makes sure that green spaces are accessible to everyone,” she said.

Nature offers ‘a lot of meaning’

Cadang continues to work on his mental health. He says he’s also looking for ways to turn his love of the outdoors into a career, after transitioning from an interior design program to study fish and wildlife technology.

He’s recently found success foraging for and selling wild mushrooms.

As he tries to find a way to make money off his love of nature, Cadang has found success as a wild mushroom forager. (Submitted by Jon Cadang)

And after making peace with his parents, it’s a hobby they now enjoy as a family.

“We’ve made it a tradition that we go foraging for fiddleheads every spring. Now we go to the same spot and we end up having a really nice meal afterwards,” Cadang said.

“They’re very accepting of what I do now because they see that it brings me a lot of meaning and joy in my life — and they certainly don’t mind having a lot of food on the table when I come home.”

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