To Your Health
November, 2009 (Vol. 03, Issue 11)
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The Healing Power of Nature

By Dr. Meridel Gatterman

In a world increasingly dominated by video games and processed foods - conveniences that typically keep people indoors and sedentary - spending time outdoors is an absolute necessity from a health and wellness perspective. Evidence suggests a lack of time spent enjoying nature and all it has to offer can directly and indirectly contribute to obesity, depression and other serious health conditions.

Wherever you are right now, stop for a moment or two and picture yourself outdoors on a sunny afternoon, taking a brisk walk on the beach or through a park. Feel the sun on your face and the wonder of your outdoor environment filling up your senses.

If you're outside already, good for you - it's a great place to be when it comes to physical and mental health. If you're indoors, which is where an increasing number of people spend the majority of their day, make sure you take time whenever possible to enjoy what nature has to offer, because research suggests it's an important contributor to your lifelong health and wellness. In short, the natural world offers something that the indoor environment cannot. The prevalence today of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), depression, obesity, and health issues related to overstimulation by the ever-present electronic environment can be directly related to an absence of time spent enjoying nature, replaced by increasing time spent on the couch watching TV, playing video games and soaking in artificial light.

Nature Deficit Disorder

The Healing Power of Nature - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark In Last Child in the Wood: Saving Our Children From Nature Deficit Disorder , R. Louv links ADHD to a lack of exposure to nature and makes reference to nature deficit disorder. He reports that thoughtful exposure to nature can be a powerful form of therapy for ADHD. He notes that in addition to needing good nutrition and adequate sleep, children may well need contact with nature.

The triad of inattentive, impulsive and hyperactive behavior has increased dramatically in recent years. Thinking beyond the widespread use of drugs that is standard treatment for ADHD, exposure to nature can have a positive influence on concentration. Children are better able to focus after a 20-minute walk in a natural setting. In fact, taking walks in nature (e.g., the woods or a beach), compared to in urban or residential areas, has resulted in improvements in ADHD symptoms. This form of natural therapy does not have the stigma associated with it that more traditional therapy has, is inexpensive, and does not have the potential side effects of drug therapy; not to mention that many children are resistant to taking ADHD drugs.

Depression: A Lack of Nature?

Approximately 20 percent of the U.S. population is affected by depression during a given year. No one is immune: It affects males and females, children, adolescents, adults and older adults of all ethnic and racial groups, and people of all educational and income levels. Older adults have the highest rate of depression, with twice as many women as men afflicted. A common nonpharmaceutical treatment recommended for the prevention of depression is exercise. It has been found that "green" exercise provides adults with a "recess" in a natural environment. Joggers who exercise in a natural green setting with trees, foliage and landscape views feel more restored and less angry, anxious and depressed than people who exercise in a gym. It has also been noted that one of the main benefits of spending time in nature is stress reduction.

Kids get depressed, too. Parents, educators and health care professionals need to understand that nature can be a safe and useful antidote for emotional stress. One of the tragedies associated with the increase in depression in children is the rate at which American children have been prescribed antidepressants. Reports have linked this increased prevalence with elevated rates of adolescent suicide.

A number of factors may have led to the escalated use of antidepressants among children. These factors include increasing rates of depression in successive age groups, a growing awareness of and screening for depression by pediatricians, and assumptions that the effectiveness experienced by adults using antidepressant medications will translate safely to children and adolescents. The growth in such prescriptions written for children has occurred even though antidepressants were not approved for children younger than 18. Although exposure to nature may have no impact on the most severe cases of depression, we do know that nature experiences can relieve some of the everyday pressures that may lead to childhood depression.