A nature prescription could be just what the doctor ordered
“In Australia we haven’t really done much about this – even though we have beautiful landscapes and continued investment in green infrastructure. It’s time – we really need to do something about this,” said Professor Xiaoqi Feng, a co-principal investigator of the trial at the University of NSW.
Shinrin-yoku originated in Japan in response to the technology boom that turned Tokyo into a neon wonderland filled with burned-out salaries. Shirin-yoku is not practice. “This is absolutely not a hike,” Little said. You walk slowly. You tune your senses to nature: the rustling and crunching of leaves, the chirping of birdsong. just be
Proponents have several theories as to why this might work. Maybe it gets you away from the stress of everyday life. Perhaps exposure to different bacteria and fungi adjusts your microbiome.
Or maybe, after millions of years spent on the savanna, our bodies are simply hard-wired to enjoy nature. Perhaps we find calm lakes beautiful because fresh water has always meant safety and survival.
“Our history on this planet was 99 percent of our time on this planet was among trees, and now 1 percent lived in concrete boxes,” says Daniel D’Appio, an accredited certified forest therapy guide at Primary and Community Care Services, a partner in the trial. “We have this innate thing in us that responds well to nature. It’s a feeling to be there. And we don’t give ourselves a chance to do that.”
But the evidence for any of these theories, and for park prescribing in general, remains unclear.
University of Wollongong Professor Thomas Astell-Burt points to several randomized controlled trials showing that people asked to walk in nature saw small benefits for physical and mental health – but not when they walked on a city street not.
But most studies in the area are small or poorly designed. When they do show effects, they are typically small – for example, a small increase in time spent outside.
One possible problem could be recording. One study found that only 13 percent of people prescribed a park pass actually used it.
It emerged in one of the few recent trials in Adelaide, where GPs referred more than 30 patients with diabetes, obesity, anxiety or depression to an eight-week “nature prescription” programme. Only six ended up participating; the others said they didn’t have time, or found the concept strange.
The University of Wollongong’s trial will go a long way towards addressing the evidence gaps. The team plans to test the prescriptions on people over 45 with cardio-metabolic diseases.
Survey data suggests that most people would be eager for a natural prescription, Astell-Burt said. “All we have to do is say, ‘How do we fulfill that interest?'”