B.C. physicians prescribing time outdoors to improve overall health: Q+A
A program launched in partnership with the BC Parks Foundation has local physicians prescribing time outdoors to improve overall health.
Vancouver physician Dr. Melissa Lem spoke on CTV Morning Live Monday to explain the program and the benefits of spending time outdoors.
Below is part of a four-minute interview, which has been edited for length and clarity. Watch the full interview in the video player above.
Keri Adams: What happens when we spend time outdoors and in nature? How does it benefit our mental health?
Dr. Melissa Lem: I think nature is honestly one of the best things that we can do for our mental health from improving anxiety and depression to boosting our concentration. Scientists think it's because green and blue spaces give our over-stimulated brains a break from the hard edges and the lights and sounds and busyness of cities and screens that we haven't really evolved to be able to handle yet.
Nature is this source of what's called soft fascination that rests our brains and reduces stress and fatigue. One of my favourite studies looked at young men in Japan who sat either looking at a city street or a forest and then men who sat in the forest for just 15 minutes significantly dropped their stress hormone levels, while the men in the city had no change.
Another really positive side effect of being connected to nature, especially after this summer of wildfires and heat domes, is that people who are more connected to nature are more likely to behave in pro-environmental ways like saving electricity, recycling and advocating for political change.
Jason Pires: What are the benefits for young people? And can you actually measure the stress levels increasing or decreasing from nature?
Lem: In adults there have been studies that show not only our cortisol or stress hormone levels drop, but also blood pressure and heart-rate variability, which is a sign of stress. In kids, nature is the ultimate jungle gym for kids' mental health. So kids who spend more time living and playing near green spaces are more resilient to stress and develop motor skills faster and improve their focus better.
A really interesting study looked at kids with ADHD who took three 20-minute walks downtown on a neighbourhood street or in a park and the kids who walked in a park improved their math and attention scores to the level of kids without ADHD, similar to effects of prescription stimulant medication, which I think is incredible.
So no one is saying that taking a walk in the park can replace medication, but I think it really speaks to how powerful nature can be as an adjunct to traditional medical treatments … it's really important that (kids) get a lot of nature time to keep their brains healthy.
Adams: Doctors are now prescribing time in nature through a partnership with the BC Parks Foundation. How is that program going?
Lem: It's been going really, really well. As we know, COVID-19 has been so difficult for so many reasons, but one silver lining is that people have rediscovered nature. This summer, a poll showed that over 85 per cent of Canadians said that nature time was key to maintaining their mental health during the pandemic. So our nature and health message is really resonating right now with a lot of people.
Pires: How do we incorporate more green time in our days? For parents, what should the ratio be between screen time and being out in nature?
Lem: In our program we have a really easy recommendation. We have a standard, science-based recommendation that people spend at least two hours each week in nature, and at least 20 minutes each time, to get that fastest drop in their cortisol or stress hormone levels.
With kids, the screen-time epidemic is huge. We really need to be counteracting that with more green time. Less screen time, more green time.
A lot of people ask what counts as nature, and research shows that what matters most is when you feel like you've had a meaningful nature experience. So it can be in your garden or a city park. It doesn't have to be on top of a mountain or in the back woods.