The call of the wild: Nature is the cure

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By Craig and Marc Kielburger

Feeling a little run-down? Blue about the onset of winter? Perhaps just a touch of the flu that's going around? What you need is a good bath. No, not in your tub, but out in the woods.

The Washington Post has declared "forest bathing" to be the latest trend. This stress-reducing practice originated in Japan decades ago, and involves using all of your senses to soak up the experience of being in the woods. A certified forest therapy guide (who is, of course, from Los Angeles) told the Post that forest bathing will soon be bigger than yoga.

Engaging all of your senses to commune with nature sounds a bit hokey. But it is part of a growing movement that recognizes green space is more than just lungs for the Earth. Nature is also vital to the wellbeing of people--not just hippies--and hard science shows it can help address real health concerns.

The next time your doctor takes your blood pressure, she might give you a prescription for strolls in the park, or suggest you plant a few trees.

A 90-minute walk in nature decreases rumination (which can cause depression) by changing the neural activity in the prefrontal cortex, according to a study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Planting 10 more trees in a single city block improves residents' perception of their wellbeing in ways that are equivalent to a $10,200 increase in annual income, or being seven years younger, according to a recent study published in the Nature Research Journal.

Researchers examined the impact of trees on populations in big cities, looking at health surveys and tree density in different parts of Toronto. They discovered that people living on tree-lined urban blocks are less likely to report high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes and obesity.

Spending time outdoors also reduces feelings of isolation, helps individuals cope with illness, and results in fewer visits to the family doctor and emergency room, according to research by the UK National Health Service. The report, backed by the UK health minister, recommends that doctors hand out prescriptions for things like gardening and frolicking in the woods.

The UK's inspiration, unsurprisingly, comes from the U.S. which is ahead of the curve. American physicians are already prescribing nature exposure for their patients.

The ParkRx program was launched nationally in 2013. It's run by health practitioners, public service agencies and community groups in states across the country. The Washington, D.C., ParkRx program, for example, has mapped out and ranked more than 350 District parks for their accessibility to public transit, range of available activities, and safety. In the three years since the program's launch, D.C. physicians have handed out more than 400 prescriptions to patients, encouraging them to spend time in one of the designated parks to alleviate health concerns.

Trees can even tackle social issues beyond health.

Green space lowers crime rates in public housing projects, according to a study from the University of Chicago. Researchers found that incidents of violence and property damage were fewer in landscaped communities. The study concluded that nature reduces aggression and boosts feelings of kinship.

America is blessed with an abundance of wild space. But the building density in the suburbs and cities is increasing dramatically, pushing trees farther away from our doorsteps. Beyond the U.S., more than half of the world's population now lives in urban regions.

So before the winter blahs set in, why not give yourself a healthy shot of Mother Nature.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are the co-founders of the WE movement, which includes WE Charity, ME to WE Social Enterprise and WE Day.