The Nature Prescription
Feb 26, 2020 Amy Paturel
Spending time in nature plays a key role in health and healing.
Whether you're angry, stressed, scared or sad, connecting with Mother Nature is powerful medicine. The smells of the forest, the sounds of rustling leaves and the feel of soft grass can help reduce stress, boost feel-good hormones and clear a cluttered mind. In fact, a growing body of research confirms that getting outside is good for both body and mind. There's even data to suggest that spending time in nature can reduce the risk of asthma, allergies and heart disease.
"We're biologically wired to seek out blue and green spaces because those colors represent fertile environments where humans can thrive," says Teresa Dean, MD, an internal medicine specialist at Cedars-Sinai. The benefits are so systemic, doctors are increasingly writing "nature prescriptions."
Scientists haven't been able to tease out how or why the great outdoors produces these whole-body effects. It could be the increased vitamin D from sunshine or that people tend to exercise more when they're outdoors. It might even be the reverse—that healthier, happier people are more likely to spend time outside.
"Being in nature helps us disconnect from everyday worries and tune in to ourselves," says Hayden Lowenstein, MD, an infectious disease specialist at Cedars-Sinai. He adds that getting away from ubiquitous electronic devices can't hurt.
The idea of stepping out into nature to enhance health and healing dates back centuries. "In Japan, they call it 'shinrin-yoku,' which translates as 'forest bathing,'" says Nima Gharavi, MD, PhD, a dermatologist at Cedars-Sinai, and spending mindful time outside plays a key role in that country's health program. The Swedish government offers tax breaks to encourage people to spend more time outdoors. And for good reason: Inhaling fresh air is essentially free medicine.
While scientists haven't yet identified the optimal dose of outside time, a study from the United Kingdom reported that people who spent two or more hours outdoors each week experienced greater health perks than those who remained indoors.
"You can start by spending just five minutes outside and build up from there," Dean says. "Over time, you might discover that it feels good to slow down, take a breath and connect with the world around you."
Robert Klapper, MD, Orthopaedics
"When you go surfing, you’re on animal time. When the wave comes, you ride that energy. There’s a symbolism to it, too. The nose of the board is your future. The tail of the board is your past. And the surfer stands in the middle of the board and learns to live in the moment."
Hayden Lowenstein, MD, Infectious Diseases
"For me, climbing not only presents a physical challenge, but it’s also about problem-solving. Climbing gets me outdoors to beautiful places and allows me to disconnect from the everyday worries and stresses of the job."
Teresa Dean, MD, Internal Medicine
Seeking Out Green Spaces
"I was born and raised in Alaska, so we were always outside. When I was in medical school, I took time to sit outside on the grass during breaks. That’s where I feel most grounded."
Arun Ramachandran, MD, Neurology
Walking to Work
"I live in the Beverly Grove area, a mile away from Cedars-Sinai, so I try to walk to work whenever possible. It’s easy exercise and it helps me prepare for the day and then, on the way home, unwind."
Nima Gharavi, MD, PhD, Dermatology
(Responsible) Sun Seeker
"When I spend time outside, I feel better. I have more energy. I’m happier, and I’m convinced it makes me a better doctor. So making time to get outside is a top priority for me, whether that means hiking Temescal Canyon Trail with my family, playing tennis or hitting the beach. Of course, as a dermatologist, I also prioritize sunscreen."