Imagine going to the doctor for whatever ails you and instead of hard-to-pronounce pharmaceuticals, you get a prescription to go outside, immerse yourself in nature and stare at a deer munching on a shrub. Sound odd? It’s not so crazy. It turns out all this time we spend inside buildings, whether it’s our office, hospital, shopping mall or house, is not what we’re wired for.  Our nature-deficit needs a  nature prescription.

Some of the greatest brains in health care research have found that ecotherapy, just spending time outside surrounded by natural elements, is a real pick-me-up. It improves mood, trounces depression, zaps stress and anxiety in a happy, energizing, rejuvenating kind of way. Luckily, it’s not so hard to get. As little as 5 minutes in your back yard, at a park or in any natural settings can boost your mood.

In Japan, they call it “Shinrin-yoku” which roughly translates to “taking in the forest atmosphere”, or “forest bathing”. In a 2010 study, participants experienced lower levels of cortisol, a lower pulse rate, and lower blood pressure when they were exposed to natural elements. The sound of a babbling brook, the smell of wood and the sight of forest scenery all worked to relax and de-stress people.

And it’s key for the whole family. You’ve probably seen this scenario…summertime and the living is easy, fish are jumping …and the kids are slumped in front of the TV, gameboy or other screen of choice. Not so surprising, there’s a direct link between screen-time and major motion picture problems like childhood obesity. Nature to the rescue!

My colleague instituted a strict rule for his kids on summer vacation. Despite living in a beautiful area surrounded with nature, they wanted nothing more than to catch up with everything on the internet, spending hours pouring over Justin Bieber’s pretty hair and very important Webkinz Newz. So now between the hours of 12 and 5, they’re only allowed inside to go to the bathroom (and the gameboy can’t come outside).

Take this one step further and add activity to it, and you’re (literally) laughing. Exercise is a known mood booster, but if you exercise outdoors, that boost gets turbo-charged. Not that there’s anything wrong with gyms, especially if there’s yet another heat alert and you still need a workout, but outside is better. My personal favorite is running along the Leslie Spit to the lighthouse and back. This great trail has a smooth bike-friendly section, or a nice and winding natural path for runners, walkers and birdwatchers. The sound of the waves lapping at the rocks, the scent of trees and wildflowers, the flutter of butterflies and birds all help inspire me to keep running in a way that a treadmill never can.    

Ideally, we all get a chance to visit the pristine countryside, but what if you can’t afford the gazillion dollars to summer in the Muskokas? Make friends with people with cottages. Is it wrong to invite said friends over for an elaborate dinner then drop elephant sized hints about how free you are this weekend? “I’ve just finished hand-torching this Crème Brule for you. Would you like another one on, hmmm I don’t know… Saturday? Where did you say you’d be? Your cottage? I could make that work.”

Want an idea on how to do it today? You’re not too late for the Blue Flag Beach Bonanza today at Ward Island from 1 – 7 PM. Enjoy water sports, beach volleyball, sand castle competitions, yoga, and prizes, natch. If you get there for 1:45, Jim Bradley (Minister of the Environment) will talk about what’s happening to improve the water quality in our great lakes.

Safety is always key so follow these guidelines for your nature prescription:

  • Go with a friend (or at least let someone know where and when you’ll be going)
  • Pay attention to the weather
  • Wear the right clothing for the weather and the area (i.e. flip-flops are lousy for hiking the hills)
  • Be aware of your surroundings
  • Bring water to stay hydrated (and maybe snacks)
  • Be sun-smart, slather on the sunscreen (paraben-free) or cover up if you can.

Happy trails!