What does “Nature As Medicine Mean?”

Nature as Medicine: The practice of prescribing time in nature as a way to ameliorate chronic disease, improve health outcomes, and reduce healthcare costs.

The Evidence 

For the last few decades, researchers from around the world have been exploring how time spent outside in natural “greenspaces” can affect the mind and body. There are currently over 700 studies on the health effects of time spent in nature, many of which are featured in the following resources:

image credit: Trust For Public Lands

A literature review done in 2015 looked at research done on how neighborhood greenness may affect health behaviors and outcomes. The team looked at over 89 studies examining the effects of green space on health outcomes varying from stress to birth outcomes to obesity, and ranked each the evidence supporting each outcome by how  consistent, plausible, precisely quantified, and biased it was.

Their conclusion? They found that green spaces could be beneficial for “physical activity, obesity, mental health, birth outcomes, cardiovascular outcomes, and mortality.” Another review done in 2018 in the UK, examined 149 studies from around the world to conclude that “greenspace exposure is associated with wide ranging health benefits”.

And the body of research is only diversifying.  Ground-breaking work being done by 2019 Award SHIFT Official Selection Dr. David Strayer and his team at the Applied Cognition Lab at University of Utah actually takes people on backpacking trips into Bears Ears with EEGS. They’re examining how time spent in nature affects our attention span and neural restoration. In Kentucky, the Envriome Institute, another SHIFT 2019 Official Selection, launched the Green Heart Project, a first-of-its-kind scientific experiment that is testing whether increasing green space in a neighborhood improves air quality and human health.

Both organizations will present their work as part of the SHIFT 2019 program.

image credit: Visit CO

Nature As Medicine In Practice

So how are people enacting Nature as Medicine?

A growing number of Parks Rx programs, nature therapy, and outdoor family programs around the country provide ways to implement nature contact in everyday life. Many of the programs out there have active cross-sector partnerships that allow them to connect with land management, healthcare providers, 

Park Rx

The idea that physicians can and should prescribe parks is a growing movement, spurred by Dr. Robert Zarr of Parks Rx America (2018 Official Selection). Physicians can issue prescriptions for time spent outside in a local greenspace. A database of nearby parks is provided and Parks Rx America has partners across the nation to engage local communities in healthier lifestyles by connecting them with their public lands and parks.

Nature Therapy

Image credit: International Surf Therapy Organization

Organizations like the International Surf Therapy Organization are working on both evidence and the implementation by collecting data and establishing best practices within the field. Thus far,  ISTO has engaged 50 surf therapy programs, bringing together experts in the field of surf therapy and collects research data that underscores surf therapy’s efficacy on anxiety, stress, and depression.

Family Programs

Families who go outside together have healthier lifestyles and more powerful social connections. Programs like Families in Nature (SHIFT 2019 Official Selection) and Outdoors Rx, a program of the Appalachian Mountain club offer ways for families to connect with their kids outside for healthier lifestyles.


What Next?

Add to the Research

Despite the growing body of evidence that supports the beneficial impact of nature on varying health outcomes, more research needs to be completed in order to justify public health interventions through nature.

Several areas of research outlined in the 2017 Frumkin, et al  agenda offer a path forward to decrease the knowledge gaps and improve our understanding of the nature -health connection The research areas proposed are:

  1. a) mechanistic biomedical studies; 
  2. b) exposure science; 
  3. c) epidemiology of health benefits; 
  4. d) diversity and equity considerations; 
  5. e) technological nature; 
  6. f) economic and policy studies; and 
  7. g) implementation science.

Researchers who have done research on the health benefits of time outside, greenspace, outdoor recreation, etc may submit their abstract to be presented at the SHIFT Festival. Deadline September 15.

Quantify The Healthcare Impacts Of Time Outside

Before policies can be implemented, or significant infrastructure implemented, the economic impacts of nature contact must be quantified. This requires cross-sector collaboration between land management organizations, healthcare providers, and governmental agencies. This need for economic validity is what inspired the 2019 SHIFT Festival theme, Nature As Medicine: The Business Case. 

This idea of quantifying the economic impacts of outdoor recreation and nature exposure on the healthcare system will be explored in depth in various workshops and programs throughout the festival. Read more.

Create Universal Frameworks

Fragmentation and inefficiency are two barriers to advancing health outcomes from nature. At the SHIFT 2019 Festival, stakeholders from conservation, land management, and public health will come together at programs like the Community Toolkits workshop to discuss guidelines established by successful community rollouts and provide a framework for policy makers, physicians and land managers to take home with them.


View the full schedule for the 2019 SHIFT Festival here

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