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Stressful week? The government is 'prescribing' you time at the park

Time spent outdoors has been shown to boost happiness and reduce stress.
/ Source: TODAY

No plans this weekend? The government wants you to spend time in a park.

Saturday, April 16 has been deemed Park Prescription (ParkRx) Day — an initiative led by the National Park Service (NPS) that "prescribes" time spent in a park to enjoy the healing power of nature.

According to the NPS website, the day was created to "promote the growing movement of healthcare providers referring patients to parks to improve their health and wellbeing." This year, ParkRx Day is a fee-free day in US National Parks.

Time in nature is linked to improved mental health

Beyond participating in a national observance day, there's good reason to take advantage of your local park. A home close to an urban green space can be good for the soul.

For city dwellers, living within about 300 yards of a park or nature reserve was associated with higher life satisfaction, higher sense of worth and more happiness, British researchers reported in the journal Applied Geography.

The findings were based on residents of London, England, but would likely apply around the world since the benefits of green space are “pretty universal,” said co-author Victoria Houlden, a researcher at the Centre for Urban and Regional Development Studies at Newcastle University.

“Humans evolved in natural landscapes, which would have historically offered sustenance and shelter. It may be that being in nature makes us feel at home and encourages positive emotions, so we are more inclined to seek out these places,” Houlden told TODAY.

“Making time to connect with your local green space and spend time in nature may have a great impact on your mental well-being.”

Using data from the Annual Population Survey — a census-like project of households in Great Britain and Northern Ireland — the researchers focused on people living in London and ended up with information about 25,518 people. The data was pooled over a three-year period that ended in 2015.

As part of the survey, the participants were asked questions about their mental well-being, to be answered on a scale of 0–10, including:

  • Overall, how satisfied with your life are you nowadays?
  • To what extent do you feel the things you do in your life are worthwhile?
  • How happy did you feel yesterday?

Researchers analyzed those responses along with data on the 20,000 public green spaces in London, creating a model that showed where those parks and nature reserves were located in relation to where the participants lived.

It turned out living within 300 meters (328 yards) to an urban green space was linked with a “statistically significant” boost in life satisfaction, worth and happiness.

Another study found spending at least two hours a week outdoors in a natural setting was linked with good health and mental well-being. It didn't matter how those 120 minutes were achieved — whether over regular short walks in a local park or one long hike on the weekend — just as long as people met that weekly threshold.

Meanwhile, the practice of “forest bathing” — mindfully walking through the woods as a way to reduce stress and restore the mind — continues to gain popularity in the U.S.

Why is time in nature so good for the soul?

There are several theories about why green spaces can be so soothing. They can promote physical activity, which is beneficial for both physical and mental health, Houlden said. They offer opportunities to socialize and strengthen social networks, another important component of mental well-being, she added.

Previous research suggests nature itself can be mentally restorative by reducing stress and enabling people to regain concentration. Going into nature changes how the brain works, with the parts associated with being mindful and in a meditative state becoming more active, said David Strayer, a professor of psychology at the University of Utah. People stay more in the moment rather than ruminating about their problems.

“Green space may be even more restorative when you're very stressed, or if it enables you to undertake certain activities that you really enjoy,” Houldon said, adding that regularly making time to connect with nature is key.

So take your lunch, workout or a good book al fresco this weekend — the park is waiting.