You may get a shock when your doctor gives you your next prescription.
A man walks into the doctor’s office. He complains of feeling listless, lack of energy and generally depressed. The doctor asks him some questions, thinks for a moment and looks him in the eye as he exclaims, “I have a prescription for you. A daily walk in the park, several minutes of deep inhaling of outdoor air and take your lunch break on a lawn area, perhaps under a tree.”
We made this story up. However, there is growing evidence that the natural, green world around us not only helps improve our health day to day, it may prevent “early death”. In short, public health generally benefits greatly by a greener environment.
Here is what we have discovered recently in support of this idea:
Dr. Dan Crouse is a researcher at the University of New Brunswick, where the results of an extensive study show that the more humans are exposed to greenery, the lower the risk of premature death. “Natural environments, including parks, forests, lakes and open water, are recognized as having the potential to mitigate the adverse effects on health associated with urban living, such as traffic congestion, noise and air pollution,” says Dr. Crouse.
Parks and gardens are not essential for us to enjoy the health benefits. “Just having trees around where people live is really important.” Crouse explains. Ahh, trees! Crouse discovered that benefits of green spaces accrue to people in every demographic, but more so for middle-aged men.
Trees are known to create an environment that helps us breathe easier, think more clearly and generally give us a lift. That is why the Japanese have been ‘forest bathing’ for generations. According to a recent story in the Toronto Star, Victoria Gibson reports that a new study involving 16 institutions, recommends 20 land-based actions that could lead to a third of the emissions reductions needed to hit global warming targets. The report suggests that the biggest solution to mitigating the wrongs produced by our over consumption of fossil fuels is trees.
We think that planting and caring for the forests in our cities, where most Canadians live, should be a priority.
The idea of human healing and growth, nurtured by healthy interaction with the earth is not a new idea, but it is catching on. In 1996, Howard Clinebell wrote the book “Ecotherapy” on the topic. He called it “green therapy” and “earth-centred therapy”. The idea suggests that nature-based exercises and nutrition can help patients cope with mental and physical illnesses. Quite literally, rather than prescribe drugs to help solve a health problem, a walk in the park may be recommended. Research points to positive results for people who spend time in green spaces. Experiencing a green, outdoor environment can reduce anxiety and depression, attention deficit disorder and chronic illness such as diabetes.
Dr. Gillian Booth, a medical researcher at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto has studied the benefits to human health of green spaces. Her suggestion is that we can design our urban spaces better by, “Creating more walkable cities”, with improved public transit and more accessible public parks.
Her studies lead her to conclude that a “walkable” city is one that eliminates or minimizes the negative impacts of street noise, air pollution and traffic congestion.
Planting more trees can only be a good thing.
A greater investment in maintaining the mature trees that we already have growing in public spaces can only make matters better.
Given the evidence, everyone can benefit from an enhanced green environment, regardless of where you live. Such is the healing power of nature.
Mark Cullen is an expert gardener, author, broadcaster, tree advocate and holds the Order of Canada. His son Ben is a fourth-generation urban gardener and graduate of University of Guelph and Dalhousie University in Halifax. Follow them at markcullen.com, @markcullengardening, on Facebook and bi-weekly on Global TV’s National Morning Show.