Decades of research have proven that nature is good for us, whether we’re children or in our senior years. From attention deficit disorder to anxiety, and from high blood pressure to depression—and even from boosting creativity to enhancing cognitive abilities—the medical community knows that many ailments and diseases can be treated by being in outdoor, natural spaces.
But in early October 2018, National Health Service (NHS) Shetland, the health authority in these Scottish islands, officially added “nature prescriptions” to their roll of treatment options for a range of afflictions. Doctors working in the 10 general practice offices (known as surgeries in Scotland) in the archipelago are now authorized by the health service to issue such prescriptions to patients to help manage diabetes, mental illness, heart disease, stress and other conditions.
Eight years ago, back in 2010, I had written about a doctor in San Francisco who prescribed nature to her patients. Five years later, I brought you Video: The Prescription-Strength Drug Called “Nature.” However, it’s believed that to date no other NHS trusts or boards are formally prescribing nature and exercise in this way.
All of the Shetland Islands public surgeries will now have a seasonal calendar and a leaflet, titled “Nature Your Soul,” listing walks and activities that doctors can hand out to patients. Developed by The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the leaflets identify bird and plant species and include suitable hiking routes.
To me, the most amazing thing about the calendar is the poetic wording for the medical “remedies” it offers. Along with activities you might expect—such as cycling, hiking, kayaking and swimming—this nature prescription program also taps into connecting with wilderness in a “softer” way. For example, the calendar encourages patients to:
• beachcomb for shells;
• play like an eight-year-old—build a den or get together with friends and play the games you used to engage in outside;
• touch the sea;
• really look at a lichen;
• find a bud on a tree and feel the texture;
• take a wader minute: step outside and hear the call of a whaup (curlew), lapwing or redshank;
• bury your face in the grass;
• look for tracks and signs of animals;
• put your hood down;
• follow the course of a burn (a brook or a stream);
• watch the waves during the equinox gales;
• notice the sphagnum moss under your feet—this powerful little plant has made the most of the peat in the Shetlands and helps tackle climate change;
• write a worry onto a stone and throw it into the sea;
• rewild one of your senses—smell everything in nature;
• attempt to spot humpback whales on their autumn migration;
• talk to a pony;
• go otter watching;
• appreciate a cloud;
• find a place outdoors where you feel safe to just “be”; try to be still in nature for three minutes and notice how you feel;
• get out, whatever the weather, and feel the exhilaration of wind and rain on your face;
• try “charming” a worm from the ground without digging or adding liquids—rhythm is the answer;
• carve out some time to yourself and go explore somewhere you’ve never been before—solitude in nature clarifies thought;
• reflect back on your year and recognize how far you have come.
Adding a dose of adventure
Of course, these prescribed brushes with nature are not meant as replacements for traditional health care—at least not exclusively—but as supplements. The hope is that the program will be a success and open others’ eyes in the medical community to such nontraditional and subtle treatments for body and mind. And the Shetland Islands seem to be the perfect spot for this inaugural medical approach: their wild landscapes couldn’t be more beautiful or fantastic.
In that 2010 article I wrote so long ago, I pondered how much better we might feel if we upped these kinds of prescriptions from a daily dose of nature to a regular, required amount of adventure.
While this mandate in the Shetlands Islands isn’t quite there yet, it sure is a good start.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,