What is a 'green prescription'?

Last Updated: 22 May 2022

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Imagine you’re experiencing a low mood or disturbed sleep. How would you feel if your doctor prescribed you time outside? Frustrated? Relieved? A bit of both?

Well, this could be a reality soon: many countries around the world – including Australia and New Zealand – are testing or have approved medical professionals to be able to provide ‘green prescriptions' to their patients. While the nuts and bolts of this are still being worked out in most parts of the world – for example, we are yet to know exactly what this prescription can treat and how any relevant improvement can be monitored – there is already a lot of literature to draw from.

So, what is a green prescription? And where can you get one?

What is a ‘green prescription’?

A green prescription – also known as a ‘nature prescription’ – refers to a prescription of ‘nature-based activities’ that a medical professional can give to a patient. This prescription can prescribe a certain length of time in the outdoors or can become more specific in terms of what the medical professional believes the patient needs.

A ‘nature-based activity’ can take many different forms:

  • Walking outside

  • Playing sport outside

  • Gardening

  • Attending a green gym

  • Engaging with therapy in an open, green space

Essentially, anything that pulls you away from the four walls of your home or workplace and into the open air. However, the most effective activity for one person may not be the most effective for another: for example, laying on the grass in the sun might be a great activity for someone who is vitamin D deficient and wants to practice mindfulness. However, for someone who wants to mitigate the effects of a sedentary working lifestyle, maybe a brisk walk around a park would be more appropriate.

What could be the benefits of a green prescription?

The specific benefits are still being determined for Australian recipients, as well as recipients around the world. It’s generally expected that a green prescription can have beneficial effects upon the following conditions (Green Adelaide, 2022):

  • Mild-to-moderate diabetes

  • Obesity

  • Anxiety

  • Depression

  • Low mood

To shed more light on the possible results of this program, Green Adelaide and the Appleton Institute teamed up to run a study that involved 8 GPs and around 30 participants (Green Adelaide, 2022). The leader of the trial Dr Robyn Molsher said that ‘the program benefits are overwhelmingly positive’ and that green prescriptions would perfectly supplement and complement more orthodox approaches to medical care and treatment (Green Adelaide, 2022).

However, it’s not just about the benefits that recipients reap from this prescription: governments and regions also have to take into account the possible ecological pros and cons of encouraging large groups to immerse themselves in the great outdoors (Leeds Beckett University, 2019). For example, an ecological positive could be an increase in people spending their green prescription acting as environmental conservationists in their local parks and wildlife areas (Madison, 2020). However, an ecological negative could be an increase in people hiking through restricted areas or off-trail in nature reserves and parks.

Which countries are prescribing this already?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, green prescriptions were founded in the 90s by one of the most naturally beautiful countries in the world: New Zealand. Almost 30 years on, New Zealanders can now self-refer a green prescription for free. The prescription lasts for 3 months and includes consistent communication with a trained physical activity specialist (Patel et al, 2011), who helps recipients track any goals or achievements they discuss during that time. Parents can also self-refer their families for green prescriptions, still with ongoing support from a physical activity specialist (Health Navigator Editorial Team, 2021). As this concept spreads to other countries, especially in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, healthcare leaders are looking to New Zealand as an example of effective implementation of this program.

Though New Zealand was the first place to use a prescription model, the idea of utilising green space psychological support has been around for many years: as early as the 1980s, Japanese medical professionals were suggesting immersing oneself in the forest, or shinrin yoku, as a means of de-stressing and detaching from the digital and corporate world (Dose of Nature, 2020).

More recently, many countries have been utilising the New Zealand model – especially as a form of recovery post-COVID. For example, four out of ten Canadian provinces now have medical professionals providing green prescriptions as of 2022 (Broom, 2022). Some of these recipients are also receiving year-long passes into Canada’s beautiful national parks and marine conservation areas, many of which you would usually have to pay to enter (Broom, 2022).

The UK is also giving green prescriptions a go: in 2020, over £4M was invested in an initial trial of ‘social prescribing’, which includes providing ‘green social prescriptions’ much like those in New Zealand (NHS England, 2022). As of May 2022, the funding for this project has increased to a total of £5.77M (NHS England, 2022).

Where can you learn more?

With regards to Australian trials, keep an eye on local and national news outlets. This is a burgeoning area and is already garnering the attention of popular news outlets such as the Canberra Times, Adelaide Now and The Conversation.

To read up on current Australian trials and reports, have a look at the following:

You can also ask your GP to give you any updates on green prescription studies and the effect they may have on your region or state.

References

Broom, D., 2022. ‘Why are doctors issuing ‘green’ prescriptions? Because mental health needs more than medicine.’ The Print. Accessed 17 May 2022 via https://theprint.in/opinion/why-are-doctors-issuing-green-prescriptions-because-mental-health-needs-more-than-medicine/850253/

Dose of Nature, 2020. ‘Around the World: Nature-based initiatives, projects and interventions in other countries.’ Dose of Nature. Accessed 19 May 2022 via https://www.doseofnature.org.uk/around-the-world1

Green Adelaide, 2022. ‘Trial determines that nature prescription demystification is needed to improve wellbeing.’ Green Adelaide. Accessed 17 May 2022 via https://www.greenadelaide.sa.gov.au/news/2022-sa-nature-prescription-trial-findings

Health Navigator Editorial Team, 2021. ‘Green Prescriptions.’ Health Navigator New Zealand. Accessed 17 May 2022 via https://www.healthnavigator.org.nz/healthy-living/g/green-prescriptions/

Jorgensen, A. & Robinson, J.M., 2020. ‘Green prescriptions: should you doctor send you for a walk in the park?’ The Conversation. Accessed 16 May 2022 via https://theconversation.com/green-prescriptions-should-your-doctor-send-you-for-a-walk-in-the-park-143231

Leeds Beckett University, 2019. ‘Improving mental health at nature reserves is excellent value for money.’ LBU: News. Accessed 16 May 2022 via https://www.leedsbeckett.ac.uk/news/1019-improving-mental-health-at-nature-reserves-is-excellent-value-for-money/

Madison, A., 2020. ‘A Covid-19 recovery strategy: Green prescribing for health.’ NHS Forest. Accessed 17 May 2022 via https://nhsforest.org/insight/a-covid-19-recovery-strategy-green-prescribing-for-health/

NHS England, 2022. ‘Green social prescribing.’ Personalised Care: Social Prescribing. Accessed 17 May 2022 via https://www.england.nhs.uk/personalisedcare/social-prescribing/green-social-prescribing/

Patel, A; Schofield, G.M.; Kolt, G.S. & Keogh, J.W.L., 2011. ‘General practitioners' views and experiences of counselling for physical activity through the New Zealand Green Prescription program.’ BMC Fam Pract, 12, 119. Accessed 17 May 2022 via https://bmcprimcare.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1471-2296-12-119

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