Nature has a sense of humor. Just ask an emu. Want a second opinion? Consult a tardigrade. Or ask Justin Bogardus, director/producer of Dream Tree Films & Productions. With his talented colleagues, Bogardus has produced a funny — and effective — mock commercial about the health benefits of the natural world: “Tired, irritable, stressed out? Try Nature.”
The slick production mimics the ubiquitous and often irritating TV commercials for pharmaceuticals: “Are you feeling tired, irritable, stressed out? Well you might consider Nature. From the people who brought you Getting Outside comes prescription-strength Nature, a non harmful medication shown to relieve the crippling symptoms of modern life.”
At first, the commercial seems like a sendup of movement to connect people to the natural world for their health and well-being, but Nature Rx is making a point. “Nature has a marketing problem,” according to Dream Tree: “Often the messages and headlines we get from the news about climate change and mass extinction can be overwhelming, leaving us wondering what to do. Behind the humor of Nature Rx is sound science. Research shows that spending more time in nature improves your health, happiness, and importantly leads to making better environmental decisions.”
Like Bogardus, physician and writer James Hamblin approaches this topic with wit in an article (and his own video) in the October issue of The Atlantic. In “The Nature Cure: Why some doctors are writing prescriptions for time outdoors,” Hamblin focuses mainly on ecotherapy, which, he notes, is not “intended as a replacement for standard evidence-based treatments.” The positive results reported by some researchers, he writes, “generally have more to do with mood and behavior than basic biology—but mood and behavior are intimately tied to physical well-being.”
It’s important to point out that ecotheraphy, primarily concerned with mental health, is only one approach. Other applications include: changing the environment of neighborhoods, hospitals, schools, play areas and workplaces through biophilic design principles to improve human health and productivity; building programs that provide experiences in nature, especially for children and adults who might otherwise not be exposed to it; and prescribing or recommending nature to patients, in traditional health care settings.For example, Hamlin describes pediatrician Robert Zarr, MD, who, like a small but growing number of physicians, “pulls out a prescription pad and scribbles instructions.” Zarr, quoted by Hamlin, explains: “If you came in to me with a bacterial pneumonia, I wouldn’t say, ‘You just go to any pharmacy, pick up any antibiotic you’d like, take it for as many days as you’d like, with or without food, and I’ll see you in a month, buddy.’” Having organized a local park catalog, available to every participating physician in the nation’s capital, he recommends which park his “diabetic or anxious or depressed patient should visit, on which days, and for how long—just as though he were prescribing medication.” Zarr’s DC Park Rx was one of the first community-health initiatives in the U.S. to incorporate nature experience. There are now, Hamlin reports, at least 150 others.
Such efforts are supported by the body of scientific evidence that has grown rapidly over the past decade, and more nature is needed. The Children & Nature Network continues to build a data base of those studies. The C&NN Research Center is now available to anyone in the world.
Time spent in nature isn’t a panacea, but it does offer special properties. In 2013, in a presentation at an event focused on children and nature, G. Richard Olds, MD, dean of the University of California, Riverside, Medical School, made this point: Few medications or prescriptions work both as prevention and as therapy.
Like the other therapies, though, nature can have side effects. Consequently, the Nature Rx “commercial” includes this important warning: “Side effects may include spontaneous euphoria, taking yourself less seriously, and being in a good mood for no apparent reason. So, ask your doctor if Nature is right for you.”
Richard Louv is chairman emeritus of the Children & Nature Network and author of THE NATURE PRINCIPLE: Reconnecting With Life in a Virtual Age and LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. His ninth book, VITAMIN N, will be published in 2016. He is currently working on his tenth book, about the evolving relationship between humans and other animals.
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