If you spend too much time surrounded by concrete, you might have what experts call "nature deficit disorder." Here's how getting back to nature can nurture your body and mind

By Robin Roberts

What is nature deficit disorder?

For Sitara Hewitt, an actress on CBC’s Little Mosque on the Prairie, flying between Los Angeles, where she lives part of the year, and Toronto and rural Saskatchewan when filming for the series, can frazzle her nerves. Luckily for her, her parents instilled a love of the outdoors, so when she needs to regroup and recharge from life’s hectic pace, she seeks out the soothing balm of nature.

And when she’s away from nature for long periods, she says, “I really start to feel kind of ill, depressed and anxious.” Hewitt, 30, says just sitting by the ocean in California, or walking by Lake Ontario near her parents’ home in Toronto, restores her equilibrium. “There’s a connection between how I feel and my surroundings.”

Indeed, too little time outside really can wreak havoc on our health, according to San Diego-based child advocacy expert Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, and chairman and co-founder of the Children & Nature Network (which works to connect kids with nature). Louv coined the term nature deficit disorder to describe “the human costs of alienation from nature,” he says. In his book, he documents studies suggesting that without regular immersion in nature, we can suffer physical and emotional distress, including anxiety, depression and obesity. Kids in particular (who make up the bulk of his research) become affected with attention disorders and can be less focused in school.

The good news? A walk in the woods or dip in the ocean is free. In fact, acres of natural, soothing tonic are all around us here in Canada, and they are especially vibrant at this time of year. We just get so caught up in our busy lives that we forget to disconnect from our wired world and reconnect with Mother Nature.

The importance of restoring this connection is an idea that has gained ground in recent years. In 2009, inspired by Louv’s book, the Canadian Child & Nature Alliance was formed to build on the movement to get children outside more often. And Dr. Faisal Moola, director of the Terrestrial Conservation and Science Program at the Vancouver-based David Suzuki Foundation, says the international science community is documenting nature’s health benefits on humans. “Scientists are now beginning to quantify this and they believe communing with nature has a direct biological, psychological value, and that these values are measurable,” he says.

So, what does regular exposure to nature do for us?

• Ensures better overall health. A summary of the research on the topic by the School of Public Health at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, found contact with nature produces health bene­fits such as lower blood pressure and reduced stress.

• Treats depression. Researchers at England’s University of Essex found a daily walk in the park could be as effective as taking antidepressants to treat mild to moderate depression.

• Creates a healthier work environment. A well-known study from the University of Michigan found that office employees who have plants around them or views of green space (such as parks, forests or even just trees) reported greater life satisfaction and enjoyed better health.

• Reduces crime. University of Illinois researchers studied people living in housing projects in Chicago. They found that residents with no view of, or access to, nature reported a greater number of acts of aggression—including violence—and conflicts with partners or children than those who lived near trees and grass. Another Chicago-based study found residents in a housing project who had easy access to nature had lower crime rates than those who did not.

Linda Buzzell, a Canadian psychotherapist and ecotherapist now based in the U.S. and co-editor of the book Ecotherapy: Healing with Nature in Mind, founded the Santa Barbara-based International Association For Ecotherapy, a group of therapists who include interaction with nature as part of their treatment for anxiety, depression and other stress-related disorders. “Until very recently, humans lived mostly outdoors in intimate contact with nature. When we deny ourselves this contact, our physical and mental health deteriorates,” she says. Just like animals in a zoo that are kept in unnatural conditions, she says, we decline when we are separ­ated from our natural habitat. “Research is showing almost any reconnection with nature has a powerful physical and mental healing effect.”

Peace Ranch, a rehabilitation program in Caledon, Ont., for adults with mental illness, uses these same principles in its recovery programs. Clients spend their days outside in the natural world. Activities range from riding horses and mucking out stalls to tending gardens or walking trails in the Cal­edon Hills. “Many of our visitors cite the calm and peacefulness that the setting draws out of them,” says Heidi Torreiter, coordinator of the Ranch’s Green Spaces program, which promotes wellness through horticulture, animal husbandry and equestrian activities. “Our clients, who are most often from the city, have a chance to rest their minds with a slower pace and less aggressive stimuli.”

Kathleen Usher, an environmental educator at McGill University in Montreal, and coordinator of Evergreen, a national not-for-profit organization whose mission is to make our cities more livable through naturalization, sums up why nature is such good medicine. “Just think about what we gravitate toward,” she says. “The ocean, big trees, tall cliffs—anywhere that makes us feel small. Because when we feel small, our stresses and our anxieties are also small.”

This article was originally titled "Wish You Were Here," in the Summer 2010 issue of Best Health. Subscribe today to get the full Best Health experience—and never miss an issue!—and make sure to check out what's new in the latest issue of Best Health.

Best Health Magazine, Summer 2010

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