Why are Scottish Doctors Prescribing Rambling and Birdwatching?

Scotland's doctors are giving out “nature prescriptions” as a complementary method of treating diabetes, heart conditions, anxiety, mental illness and a host of other conditions.


Sunrise over the mountain tops at Glencoe in the highlands of Scotland

Sunrise over the mountain tops at Glencoe in the highlands of Scotland (Helen Hotson / Shutterstock)

The natural world, in all its bounty and glory, has the incredible ability to provide us with deep feelings of peace, harmony, and connection. The newest research proves that nature doesn’t just create feelings of wellbeing, but that it actually provides concrete healing benefits as well. So much so that doctors in Shetland, Scotland are officially authorized to prescribe nature to their patients.

This past fall, the regional health board of Shetland, NHS Shetland, fully authorized general practitioners to issue “nature prescriptions” as a complementary method of treating diabetes, heart conditions, anxiety, mental illness and a host of other chronic conditions.

Over the past several years, numerous studies have been published that highlight the health benefits of spending time in nature, including a global metadata assessment of over 290 million people from all over the world.

The assessment was written by a team of researchers from the University of East Anglia and investigated health trends from 20 different countries worldwide. It found that time spent in “greenspaces,” such as open and pristine landscapes or even urban parks, reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, Type II diabetes, stress, and more.

Stress is extremely prevalent in the UK - in fact 11.7 million workdays are lost annually due to stress, anxiety, and depression.

This amazing new feat in Scotland’s healthcare even comes with a practical guide for how patients can interact with nature. Recommendations are suggested by month and include everything from feeling the power of the wind (for winter months) to burying your face in the grass (in the spring).

Other creative suggestions include: count the birds in your garden, draw a snowdrop, provide nest materials for birds, feel the texture of a new bud, observe the clouds, follow a bumble bee, write a worry on a stone and toss it in the sea, and more. The leaflet also includes classic suggestions such as plant a tree, close your eyes and listen to the sound of the birds, and go camping in the wild.

The guide is locally-based, suggesting annual neighborly clean-ups and visits to nearby landmarks, which makes the recommendations even more endearing, close-to-home, and practical.

“There are millions of different ways of doing medicine but we very much try to involve people in their own health, and people really like being empowered,” said Dr. Chloe Evans, one of the doctors who piloted the program on the west coast of Shetland’s main island.

Scotland, however, is not the first country to recommend nature as a way to combat illness. The ancient art of Shinrin Yoku (or forest bathing) has been popular in Japan for centuries and recently has become part of the national healthcare program.

“We would like this to be picked up by other areas or health boards. There is so much evidence that nature is good for us, and this is a simple way to get people outdoors and experiencing nature in a city or a wilder place like Shetland,” stated Helen Moncrieff, the area manager for RSPB Scotland.

While Shetland’s nature prescriptions are the first to be fully officially authorized in the region, the Centre for Sustainable Healthcare in Oxford has been encouraging doctor’s throughout the UK to prescribe walks in nature to their patients.

Perhaps Shetland and Japan’s example will set a powerful precedent to the rest of the world, making nature prescriptions as common as Aspirin one day.

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