Prescribing nature

A woman standing still among tall forest trees 

Only a few months ago I wrote about the benefits of mindfulness and how we can use it to engage with nature – and, in doing so, improve our health. Natural England’s study showed that taking part in nature-based activities could help those with mental health problems including stress, anxiety and depression.

We now hear that the NHS in Shetland has, as a result of working with the RSPB Scotland, rolled out a service to effectively prescribe nature to patients who might benefit. This is great news, and let’s hope the idea is rolled out to all areas of the UK.

This concept of using the benefits of a closer relationship with the natural world to improve people’s health also links in with the Government’s loneliness strategy - more about which you can see in the winter 2018 issue of Walk. 

Although prescribing nature is not a panacea for all ailments, the NHS trial, carried out at Shetland’s Scalloway GP surgery, did see an improvement in the health of patients suffering from mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety. Those suffering from high blood pressure could also benefit from being prescribed nature as part of their treatment plan.

We’ve always known that exercise has enormous benefits for our physical and mental health – after all that is why many people join the Ramblers in the first place. But it’s only more recently that evidence has shown the impact that loneliness and isolation have on our health, and this autumn we’ve seen Prime Minister Theresa May launch the first national strategy to tackle loneliness. The statistics connecting social isolation with poor physical and mental health are shocking, and it’s easy to see why the Government and the NHS are keen to address this problem. If nothing else, it could help to take pressure off an already groaning health service. 

It’s good to see that the Government taking what would seem to be a holistic approach to the problem, not only involving different Government departments but also businesses, non-governmental organisations and charities such as the Ramblers. However none of us need to wait to have nature prescribed to us, we can start now. After all, prevention is better than a cure.

A thought comes to mind: what if we bundle all of these ideas together? Combat loneliness by encouraging people to interact more face-to-face – something all too rare in the age of social media. Join walking groups, or just meet one or two like-minded friends, and start to explore the outdoors regularly. 

If this could be linked into an appreciation of the countryside, so much the better. And if it could be done with a mindfulness approach – aiming to calm the mind to better appreciate the moment – then we could get the maximum from every walk. Maybe what’s needed is for more of us to spend more time appreciating the ‘here and now’ and ignoring the endless ‘to do’ lists and deep thoughts that often fill our heads.

We could all benefit, too, from having a digital break and avoid looking at our phones every few minutes. Electronic devices are undoubtedly useful, but we can easily be distracted by them. 

Time spent walking is your time. It’s time for you and your friends to get out and enjoy your surroundings, get some exercise and appreciate the natural world. There’s a growing body of evidence proving that this type of outdoor activity can provide significant health benefits. And even if you don’t immediately feel better (which I’m sure you will) what’s the harm? You’ve spend some time connecting with nature and getting some exercise in good company There are far worse things you could be doing!

Read more about the health benefits of walking.

Magazine of the Ramblers