Use Nature for Your Physical - and Mental - Health

Back to nature, back to health

You might not need a scientific study to tell you that going for a walk on a warm spring day feels great, or that gardening keeps you active and improves your mood.  But researchers are employing nature programs (also called nature-assisted therapy) in a variety of ways to help patients with cancer, chronic pain, mental illness and dementia cope more effectively and help improve their outcome.

    According to a 2011 review of 38 different studies on the effects of nature on health and wellbeing, the notion that exposure to a natural environment can be used as a treatment of disease was first proposed in the early 1980s by Harvard psychologist E.O. Wilson in his so-called "biophilia hypothesis".  Since then, the various programs studied by researchers include:

    Horticultural therapy:  Caring for and cultivating plants as part of a treatment program.  Horticulture therapy was used for returning veterans after the second world war to aid in their recovery and rehabilitation.  Wandering gardens have been designed specifically for Alzheimer's patients, with evidence that these facilities help reduce anxiety and depression among people suffering from dementia.  Meditation or healing gardens are geared more towards passive enjoyment and relaxation.

      Wilderness and Outdoor Adventure:  Most prevalent in Australia and the US, outdoor adventure therapies date back to Outward Bound programs originating in the 1960s.  These group-based outdoor experiences involve group activities and have been used therapeutically for pediatric cancer patients, adolescents with emotional development problems, as well as recovering addicts, among others.

        The 2011 review cites benefits such as less anger and aggression among participants with mental illness, less relapse among recovering addicts and improved self-esteem among cancer patients.

      Spending unstructured time outdoors:  Simply having access to green space has been studied for its health impact by researchers.  A 2014 paper published in Environmental Health looked at the link between cardiovascular disease among more than 5,000 older adults between the ages of 45-72 over a four-year period, and the adults' proximity to green spaces. The researchers conclude that even after accounting for risk factors for heart disease such as obesity, inactivity, and smoking, those subjects living nearer to and using local green spaces had a significantly lower risk of both fatal and non-fatal cardiovascular disease during the study period.

      Other research - such as a 2003 study on newly-diagnosed breast cancer patients, found that spending two hours a week in a local botanical garden helped the study subjects focus and concentrate more effectively.

      More research to come:  Annerstedt and Wahrborg write in their 2011 review that many challenges exist in comparing studies on the effect of nature on health, primarily because the programs differ so greatly, as do the outcomes (heart rate, mood scores, overall mortality).  Eventually, research will establish how much exposure is effective, which type of nature experience has the greatest effect, and who will benefit the most from these nature-assisted therapies.


      Annerstedt, A and Wahrborg, P.  Nature-Assisted Therapy: Systematic Review of Controlled and Observational Studies.  Scandinavian Journal of Public Health, 2011;39:371-388.

      Tamosiunas et al. "Accessibility and use of urban green spaces, and cardiovascular health: findings from a Kaunas cohort study." Environmental Health 2014, 13:20.

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