Why Nature Is the Best Prescription

Getting outside for just 15 minutes is enough to lower your stress and frustration. Lolostock/Shutterstock

For about two decades, Florence Williams lived in Colorado, spending much of her free time hanging out in the Rocky Mountains. When her husband took a job in Washington, D.C., the couple made the move to the city. That prompted Williams — a journalist who covers the environment, health and science — to explore the connection between nature and wellness and she writes about her findings in her book, "The Nature Fix." Williams took a few minutes to talk to MNN before heading out for a dose of her own "prescription" for nature.

"I have always been interested in the intersection of the environment and human health. It became personal for me when I moved from Boulder, Colorado, and the Rocky Mountains to Washington, D.C., to the mega-urb. I felt very stressed out. I wasn't sleeping well. I thought about what I was missing in terms of my daily dose of nature," she says.

Williams had heard about "nature deficit disorder" — a phrase coined by journalist Richard Louv — and wondered if the concept was real.

Right around that time, she got an assignment to report on forest bathing in Japan (where people spend time in the woods for therapeutic effects) and another assignment from National Geographic that sent her looking at the effects of nature on the brain.

"I looked at researchers who were doing cutting-edge research on so many levels. The evidence is pretty new, but the science is pretty compelling," Williams says. "I also just saw a lot of these programs at work on the ground to see who was being helped by nature therapy."

She visited mental health programs in Scotland and Sweden where she witnessed horticulture and forest therapy programs used to help severely depressed patients. On the Salmon River in Idaho, women veterans with PTSD came out of their shells with the help of wilderness therapy. She spent time with a neuroscientist hiking around southern Utah and visited "forest schools" in Scotland and Finland. ("Those are forest kindergartens where little kids up to age 7 are outside pretty much almost all day long and they're having the time of their lives," Williams says. "I was skeptical at first because those countries are cold and rainy, but they have the right gear.")

A lot of the science she uncovered surprised her, she says.

"Common sense is that yeah, nature would make you happier or less stressed. I was not expecting science to point to increased creativity, increased feelings of generosity, a stronger sense of community and the 'anti-PTSD effects' of wilderness."

So, get outside already

A hiker walking on a trail at New Zealand's Mount Aspiring National Park.
A hiker bathes in beech trees at New Zealand's Mount Aspiring National Park. (Photo: Naruedom Yaempongsa/Shutterstock)

One of the things Williams realized is that anyone can benefit from this research — no matter where they live.

"I really learned that elements of urban nature can also provide a lot of benefits, and I was kind of skeptical about that having been spoiled living in the Rockies," she says. "Even a view out the window can make a difference in your healing time when you're sick, or can lower feelings of aggression in public housing or can increase test scores."

She found there truly is a "dose effect," meaning the more nature, the better.

"You don’t necessarily want to go off and become a hermit, but the more time in nature the better for your sense of restoration," she says. "There are times in our lives when we need that longer, more sustained dose ... in times of grief or trauma or more critical times of passage when we're trying to figure out our place in the world."

But if you don't have time for two weeks in the wilderness, even a few minutes can make an impact. When studying forest bathing in Japan, Williams learned that a quarter of an hour had a noticeable effect on participants.

"Fifteen minutes in nature was enough to lower your blood pressure and your stress hormones and increase you feelings of vitality and lower your feelings of frustration," she says. "At first I was skeptical that this was just an exercise effect. But the researchers sent groups of people to walk in cities for the same amount of time, and the benefits were only felt in the nature walkers."

Make it work for you

Florence Williams
Williams gets outdoors at least half an hour every day, making sure to turn off her phone and leave her earbuds at home. Sue Barr

"I am a believer that people have different needs in nature, and we have to learn what they are and pay attention," Williams says.

For her, that means trying to get to a park for at least 30 minutes every day.

"That's the minimum dose I need. When I'm out there, I try to make a big effort to engage all my senses," she says. "I listen to the birds, feel the breeze on my cheeks, look for fractal patterns on the leaves."

She turns off her phone and avoids putting in her headphones so she can just absorb the sounds and sights and smells of nature.

But if you don't have 30 minutes to head to a park, that doesn't mean the benefits of the great outdoors are out of your grasp. Williams mentions a pediatrician she knows in Washington, D.C., who "prescribes" nature to his patients. In some cases that can mean taking a different route to school to include a street that has more trees.

"We all need a dose of beauty in our day. We tend to undervalue how good nature makes us feel," Williams says. " We tend to think watching TV or shopping will make us feel better than going for a walk, but the statistics don’t bear that out. If we want to feel better, we need to make the effort because we will reap the benefits in mood or creativity later on."

Here's a video that takes a quick look at the benefits of being outside: