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Start embracing nature
In the Shetland Islands, off the north coast of the UK, doctors are handing out some unconventional prescriptions. Along with regular therapies, people with a range of physical and mental ills are being told to take in the sounds and smells of seabird colonies, build woodland dens or simply appreciate the shapes of clouds. A similar scheme in New Zealand found that, six to eight months after receiving a “green prescription”, two-thirds of patients were more active and felt healthier, and almost half had lost weight. Meanwhile, so-called eco-therapy, which involves participating in outdoor activities such as gardening or conservation, is emerging as a promising treatment for mild to moderate depression.
In fact, we have long recognised that people living in greener neighbourhoods tend to have better cardiovascular health and lower levels of stress, regardless of their socio-economic status. Recent research also suggests that city dwellers living near green spaces are at lower risk of type 2 diabetes. And it seems the greater the biodiversity in green spaces, the larger the benefit to our psychological well-being.
Various explanations have been proposed for such findings. Simply being outside boosts exposure to bright light, which is known to be an effective treatment for both seasonal and non-seasonal depression (see “Start brightening up your day”). Then there are the benefits of exercise, social contact and time out from everyday problems. Yet, connecting with nature seems to provide additional physical advantages. “We know that our heart rate slows down, we are less stressed, we breathe better and our immune responses are improved when we …