Dr. Nooshin Razani, a pediatrician at U.C.S.F. Benioff Children’s Hospital in Oakland, Calif., has taken to prescribing time outdoors to her patients, who come from low-income settings. She often leads group outings to nearby recreational areas in the East Bay Regional Park District.
“When you go to a park with your family, there are so many good things that happen,” Dr. Razani said. “Children get to play and be physically active. They get to socialize, and they get some stress relief.” Adults experience the same benefits, she added.
Teasing out the exact cause of these health benefits is difficult. Does being outdoors encourage physical activity? Would anything that gets you off the couch and away from screens improve your health? Or are healthier, happier people simply more likely to spend time outdoors?
“Most studies like this are cross-sectional, so they only look at one point in time,” said Carla Nooijen, a researcher at the Swedish School of Sport and Health Sciences, in Stockholm, whose research has examined the effects of natural environments. Tracking habits and responses over a period of time may help shed light on the possible mechanisms, she said.
Still, nature prescriptions are growing in popularity. In Sweden, friluftsliv, the term for living close to nature, is so ingrained in everyday life — from commuting by bike to relaxing in lakeside saunas — that there are tax breaks offered as incentives for the lifestyle. In South Korea, the government is establishing dozens of “healing forests” for its stressed-out citizens. And last year, NHS Shetland, a national hospital system in Scotland, began allowing doctors at some medical practices to write scripts for outdoor activities as a routine part of patient care.
The latest study is a major first step toward developing concrete guidelines for nature prescriptions, akin to the guidelines for weekly exercise. (The current weekly recommendation for American adults is at least 150 minutes of moderate activity, 75 minutes of vigorous activity, or some combination of the two.)
“This study will help clinicians like me better advise patients,” Dr. Razani said. And, she added, it provides a realistic target that most people can achieve. Low-cost and low-risk, it’s just what the doctor ordered.