A man walks into the doctor’s office. He complains of feeling listless, lacking energy and generally depressed. The doctor asks him a few questions, thinks for a moment then looks him in the eye. “I have a prescription for you,” the GP says. “A daily walk in the park, several minutes of deep, slow breathing outdoors and get out of the office for your lunch break — go for a walk or sit under a tree, if you can.”
This happens every day, in subtly different ways, in doctors’ offices across the continent. There is growing evidence that the natural, green world around us not only helps improve our day-to-day health, it may also extend lifespan.
Here is what we have recently discovered in support of this idea.
Dan Crouse is a researcher at the University of New Brunswick, where the results of an extensive study show that the more humans are exposed to greenery, the lower the risk of premature death. “Natural environments, including parks, forests, lakes and open water, are recognized as having the potential to mitigate the adverse effects on health associated with urban living, such as traffic congestion, noise and air pollution,” Crouse says.
Parks and gardens are not essential for us to reap the health benefits. “Just having trees around where people live is really important,” Crouse says. He also found that the benefits are greater for middle-aged men.
Trees are known to create an environment that helps us breathe easier, think more clearly and generally provide a mental and emotional lift. Japanese people, for instance, have been “forest bathing” for generations. A recent study led by scientists from the U.S.-based Nature Conservancy, Cornell University and the Brazilian government found that adding more trees to planet Earth was the No. 1 solution of 20 land-based actions that — if implemented — could cut greenhouse emissions by a third.
Planting and caring for the forests in our cities and greater urban areas, where most Canadians live, should be a priority in this country.
The idea of human healing and growth, nurtured by healthy interaction with the Earth is catching on. In 1996, Howard Clinebell wrote about the topic in his book titled, simply, Ecotherapy. He also refers to it as “green therapy” and “earth-centred therapy,” and the idea suggests that nature-based exercises and nutrition can help patients cope with mental and physical illnesses. Research points to positive results for people who spend time in green spaces that are known to help reduce anxiety and depression, attention deficit disorder and chronic illness such as diabetes.
Gillian Booth, a medical researcher at Toronto’s St. Michael’s Hospital, has studied the benefits to human health of green spaces. Her suggestion is that we can design our urban spaces better by “creating more walkable cities,” with improved public transit and more accessible public parks.
Her studies led her to conclude that a “walkable” city is one that eliminates or minimizes the negative impacts of street noise, air pollution and traffic congestion.
All of this suggests that the City of Toronto is on the right track. Council recently raised the budgeted investment in new tree planting. Mayor John Tory has promised that the number of trees planted next year will be double that of when he started the job four years ago.