Photo: Mental health doctor prescribes a good dose of nature

Time in nature makes us healthier and happier while also lowering occurrence of physical illnesses.

Dr. Kang is a psychiatrist who teaches about health and motivation through her books and seminars. She calls her approach the The Dolphin Way and her first parenting book The Dolphin Way: A Parent's Guide to Raising Healthy, Happy, and Successful Kids Without Turning Into a Tiger will be available in 2014

Contributor Sajan Gill is the founder of Gen-Z and a student at UBC.

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Docs Talk: What is the connection between time spent in nature and mental health?

Dr. Kang: Our internal biology rewards us when we do something important for our survival. That reward is a feeling of well-being, rejuvenation or pleasure, and it is mediated by our brain's neurochemicals. Anyone who has ever felt better by going outside in nature has experienced this reward. It is biology's way of telling us to do it again—being in nature is important for our survival.

In 2010, a study in the Journal of Environmental Psychology found that being in nature increased one's sense of vitality, happiness and energy. And in 2008, researchers at the University of Glasgow found that exercising outdoors produced a 50 per cent improvement in mental health over activities such as running and cycling in the gym. Time in nature makes us healthier and happier while also lowering occurrence of physical illnesses.

Docs Talk: Could you give us an example of how a nature prescription has benefited your patients?


Dr. Kang: Kate came to me wondering if she needed an antidepressant. In my assessment, I did not find her clinically depressed, but she was experiencing fatigue, forgetfulness and irritability. I ask all my patients how much time they spend breathing fresh air in a week. Kate looked puzzled when I handed her a pen and asked her to calculate this. A few moments later, she looked up at me with an expression of shock and understanding. "Ninety minutes a week," she said.

Kate went from her attached garage at home to her underground parkade downtown at work. She worked almost full time and spent the rest of her time driving her two boys to hockey practice, again indoors. She only spent time outside when running errands. Once she saw this imbalance in her life, Kate said, "Oh my goodness, I get it. I need to get outside more. Let me try this for a few weeks before we start any medication."

Kate never needed an antidepressant; she needed some time in nature.

Docs Talk: Do you see the same effects of nature on kids and teens as on adults?

Dr. Kang: Since children are still developing both physically and mentally, the benefits of being in nature are much greater for them. A study in the Journal of American Medicine found that children who played outdoors gained creativity and problem-solving skills as well as cooperation skills and self-discipline.

Why do you think almost all babies stop crying when we take them outside? We are biologically driven to be in nature. Many adults forget this, but children know. Not only will our children greatly benefit by being in nature more, so will adults if we follow them outside.

Docs Talk: Could you offer our readers any advice about getting out in nature?

Dr. Kang: I see the need to be in nature as no different than the need for sleep. Both are essential for our health and well-being. Consistent doses every day are best, but if that doesn't work, try to catch up on weekends. Listen to the signals from your body and mind—when you are feeling dull, lethargic and tired, sometimes a good dose of nature may be all you need.

June 5, 2013

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