A walk in the park? How spending time in nature can boost mental health
If you’re feeling stressed, anxious or discouraged, finding the energy to get outdoors may be hard – but it could be one of the best things you could do to lift your mood, particularly during COVID-19.
Ontario health-care providers are now offering “Parks Prescriptions” through a new program called PaRx that recommends spending time in nature as a way to fight depression and other ailments.
The initiative, started by the BC Parks Foundation, cites research that states our stress-hormone levels drop significantly after just 15 minutes of sitting in a forest. Spending time in nature also boosts memory, creativity and work satisfaction, according to the program.
Likewise, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health says nature can have a nurturing effect on your mental health. Even just spending 15 to 20 minutes per day outdoors in nature can be beneficial, research shows.
Danijela Puric-Mladenovic, an assistant professor of forestry at the University of Toronto’s John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design, has been championing the healing properties of nature for decades.
She is an avid hiker who regularly spends weekends exploring Ontario’s trails with her children and Shetland sheepdog.
In a recent conversation with U of T News, Puric-Mladenovic discussed the importance of forests and the outdoors in general to our well-being, as well as the urgency of increasing accessibility to green space in and around Toronto.
How important is it to get outdoors, or spend time around trees?
Human health depends on nature. In Japan, they realized that the urban population was having all sorts of health issues, so their ministries of forestry and health worked together to research and advocate for the benefits of “forest bathing” – or what most of us know as hiking. They discovered that, physiologically, our bodies and cells react positively to spending time in nature.
If you have forests, there are a multitude of benefits. In addition to being good for our health, trees provide a natural climate solution. The cheapest and most sustainable way to address many environmental problems is to plant trees.
How did you discover your passion for forests?
Growing up in Serbia, we were educated from elementary school onwards to understand nature and forests as fundamental to human health. We walked everywhere, and we were surrounded by nature. On the weekends, we joined hiking clubs whose membership ranged from seven to 90 years of age. We would drive to a hiking area and stay for two days. So, there’s a social aspect to the experience, too. Nature brings people together.
In Europe, it’s not uncommon for doctors to prescribe time in nature for a variety of conditions, whether that is asthma or a mental health issue. Many mental health institutions in Europe are located outside of the city, up in the mountains and on huge properties with lots of forest cover. There might be pine trees, whose scents have a positive impact on our breathing. People there are asked to do repetitive tasks like gardening to help them relax. These institutions are part of the health network.
Marc Johnson, an associate professor of biology at U of T Mississauga, recommends spending 30 minutes daily in nature to help boost your mood, in this installment of the series Battling Burnout.
How have people’s relationships to nature changed as a result of COVID-19?
With the pandemic, every park, conservation area and woodlands around the Greater Toronto Area has had more visitors than I have ever seen. Humans have long been arrogant about our relationship to nature, as if we are above it, but COVID was a tipping point because there was nothing else to do and we realized the beauty of nature.
This summer, I saw so many people walking out in the street in my neighbourhood. Everyone was drawn to the green spaces – the streets with more trees. This is a wake-up call to prioritize the design and protection of our green spaces.
What are some of the issues surrounding accessibility to green space in Toronto?
We are losing tree canopy in our city, and our urban sprawl is terrible. Our parks and protected areas are great, but it’s not sustainable for people to have to drive an hour to get to Algonquin Park to have that kind of access. Within the forestry program at U of T, we are always engaging with communities to help them manage their green residential areas and their tree inventories.
As members of the public, we must demand equal access to green space. This is as important as access to clean drinking water. There are some parts of Toronto and other cities where people have no access to green space – a few puny trees don’t count. We have to demand from our politicians that networks of larger parks and protected areas are established in the city. And, as individuals, we can do our part by helping to plant trees. This is an activity that will make you feel great mentally because you are helping to create our future green spaces and future communities. Plus, it’s a physical activity that you don’t need to go to the gym for.
Here are a few recommendations for some nature spots to visit in and around Toronto, with input from Puric-Mladenovic (However, keep in mind that Ontario Parks recommends only visiting provincial parks or conservation areas close to home and not to travel outside your area during COVID-19):
- Rouge National Urban Park: U of T Scarborough students have developed an app that guides you through this park
- Mount Pleasant Cemetery: An arboretum that connects to the Belt Line and through Moore Park ravine to Evergreen Brickworks
- Durham Regional Forest: more than 16 km of trails, near the Township of Uxbridge, Ont.
- Ganaraska Forest: near Clarington, Ont. A day pass is required
- Oak Ridges Moraine Trail: a 300 km-long trail that winds from that winds from the Caledon, Ont east to Castleton, Ont.
- Scarborough Bluffs: 11 parks along the shore of Lake Ontario with spectacular views of the towering bluffs. Visitors are warned not to approach the edge of the bluffs
- Cedarvale Ravine & Nordheimer Ravine: a 7.2 km out-and-back trail through the heart of Toronto
- Tommy Thompson Park: a unique Park located at the end of the Leslie Street spit in Lake Ontario, with trails, bird-watching a spectacular city views
And if you are under quarantine or can't get outside?
- People around the world are finding that looking at nature virtually can help
Find out more about mental services and supports at U of T