Nature for Mental and Physical Health

Most people sense that spending time in nature makes them feel good – but now there is solid research showing the quantifiable mental and physical health benefits that result from time spent in forests.

As listed on the New York Department of Environmental Conservation website (“Immerse Yourself in a Forest for Better Health”), spending time outside in the woods can result in the following health benefits:

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Research shows the benefits of time spent under a green canopy.

  • Boosts immune system
  • Lowers blood pressure
  • Reduces stress
  • Improves mood
  • Increases ability to focus, even in children with ADHD
  • Accelerates recovery from surgery or illness
  • Increases energy level
  • Improves sleep

“Even five minutes around trees or in green spaces may improve health,” the DEC says. “Think of it as a prescription with no negative side effects that’s also free.”

Nature as a prescription, eh? What a concept!

Ahead of the game, as usual, Cornell University began a new and innovative campaign in 2015 that does just that: prescribes students to spend time outdoors in nature. Created by Horticulture professor Don Rakow, Nature Rx takes a critical and integrated One Health approach to maintaining the mental health of students: the program encourages students to appreciate and utilize time in their natural environment as a way to reduce stress and improve their own physical and mental health.

As one component of this program, Gannett Health Services has begun issuing “nature prescriptions” directly to students, encouraging them to go outside and engage, interact and cultivate an appreciation for nature. According to the prescription, spending even five minutes outside is a fast and easy no-cost way to reduce stress and regain a sense of balance.

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“Research has shown that being outdoors and interacting with the environment has many health benefits, including decreasing depression, relieving anxiety, and providing a new perspective,” says Rakow. “These symptoms are more and more common in college students. Cornell University is located in the middle of such a beautiful and diverse area – it simply makes sense to use the environment that is naturally available to us to better our own health.”

With input from the co-chairs of the Student Assembly’s Health and Wellness Committee, Carolina Bieri (Atmospheric Science, ‘16) and Matthew Indimine (Policy Analysis and Management, ‘18), Student Services –IT has created CUinNature, a website app which allows students to locate a selection of nearby nature spots on campus. Viewers can look at photos of the F.R. Newman Arboretum at the Cornell Plantations, the Fall Creek Gorge, Beebe Lake, and the Mundy Wildflower Garden among others – and then take short walks to these locations and enjoy their beauty in person.

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Find nature locations in and around campus with CU in Nature.

“Students may feel that they have to go a long way to reach nature,” explains Rakow, “But it’s all around them at Cornell.  Gorges, gardens, and greenways beckon us from almost every portal.”

Take it Outside (PLHRT 4940) is a new course developed for freshmen with the purpose of getting students out to explore the many natural wonders – gorges, gardens, green spaces – found on the Cornell campus.  According to Sonja Skelly, director of education for Cornell Plantations and course instructor, “Take it Outside” is specifically offered only to freshmen because she hopes that getting younger students hooked on nature early will keep them coming back outdoors – and keep them mentally healthy – for the length of their college careers and beyond.  Skelly adds that, for those not enrolled in the class, the Cornell Plantations website makes it easy for interested students to find great places to spend time outdoors and appreciate the natural beauty of the landscape in the Cornell area.

If we assume that it’s easier to teach a young dog new tricks, should we be teaching even younger people to develop a life-long habit of appreciating nature?

According to the National Wildlife Foundation (NWF), over the last 20 years there has been a real decline in the amount of time that young children spend outside. The NWF says that this has had a significant impact on the health of children’s bodies, minds and spirits. “Our kids are out of shape, tuned out and stressed out, because they’re missing something essential to their health and development: connection to the natural world,” the NWF website reads. Teaching kids to enjoy, appreciate and utilize nature for its mental and physical benefits to health early on will allow them to better handle stress and always have a safe place to regroup as they grow up. Rakow and others hope that students involved in Nature Rx at Cornell will be able to teach these good habits early on to their children as well.


This article was written by Cecelia Madsen.

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