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Don’t take a pill, say social prescribers, take a nature walk instead

A woman sitting in the forest

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Published
1 September 2023

The restorative power of a simple dose of outdoors contributes to our overall wellbeing, say Southern Cross University’s proponents of social prescribing.

Let’s face it, for most people spending time in nature has greater appeal and fewer barriers than exercise like running or the gym.

The link between spending time in nature and wellbeing has led to more and more GPs in the UK, Singapore and Canada writing nature-based prescription programs alongside pharmacy medications for patients.

Here in Australia, nature prescribing is not yet commonplace, despite interest from doctors and a growing body of research. A 2019 report from the RACGP and the Consumers Health Forum of Australia recommends we use social prescribing to counter rising chronic health problems. It’s also among the proposed approaches for improving health and wellbeing in Australia’s 10 Year Primary Health Care Plan, with models of social prescribing being trialled by Primary Health Networks (PHN) nationally.

Disconnect to reconnect box for mobile phones at Grounding Cafe
Disconnect to reconnect: customers are encouraged to put away their mobile phones at the Grounding Cafe in Surfers Paradise.

As a healthcare solution, Southern Cross University psychologist Dr Eric Brymer says social prescribing helps shift the focus from treatment to prevention and early intervention.

“Social prescribing involves the referral of patients to non-medical activities, ranging from health and fitness programs to movie clubs and meditation. The health benefits of ‘green’ (parks and trees) or ‘blue’ (coastal) prescriptions are many and there are calls to integrate them more into routine care. It can be as simple as walking and being in nature,” Dr Brymer said.

“Research has shown that engaging with nature has profound benefits for the health and wellbeing of people and our planet. It is now important that we take this research seriously and recognise that that interactions with nature should be fundamental to the provision of good community health care.”

Christina Aggar and Eric Brymer
Associate Professor Christina Aggar and Dr Eric Brymer at the Grounding Cafe, Surfers Paradise, one of the EACH Conference venues.

The Gold Coast recently hosted the Asia Pacific region’s first green and blue social prescribing summit, the 2023 EACH (Environment, Activity, Connection, Health) Conference, with Southern Cross University researchers playing a key role.

As conference organising committee members, Dr Brymer and Southern Cross colleague Associate Professor Christina Aggar brought together more than 120 of the world’s leading proponents of social prescribing and nature prescriptions in across the disciplines of health, sport, education, community, environment and more.

Associate Professor Aggar has been working in the social prescribing space for more than a decade. In a keynote address, she presented examples of contemporary social prescribing projects across Australia, as well as the application of social prescribing to support family carers’ wellbeing.

“Unpaid carers, often overlooked, save billions of dollars in healthcare and social costs while providing emotional strength and support to family and friends. Acknowledging and supporting carers’ wellbeing is crucial, as their resilience impacts the care they give,” Associate Professor Aggar said.

“Prioritising carers’ wellbeing through social prescribing can enhance their support structure and recognise their contribution as active members of the community.”

Tamsin Thomas in green leaves
Tamsin Thomas, a PhD candidate researching forest therapy for mental illness.

Also presenting research at the EACH conference was Tamsin Thomas, a final year PhD candidate investigating social prescription of forest therapy for mental illness.

“I’m passionate about using evolutionary psychology to improve mental health and quality of life through connection with nature,” Tamsin said.

“My research goal is to improve access to treatments for biopsychosocial wellbeing for underprivileged and marginalised groups. I believe this can only be achieved at a grassroots level, and that social prescribing of nature therapy programs have potential as effective, accessible, and scalable programs that can be implemented Australia-wide to achieve this goal.”

Tasmin also recently addressed delegates at the Princess Alexandra Hospital Health Symposium which was focussed on promoting whole of person wellbeing in healthcare.

“I've been incredibly privileged to meet so many amazing researchers in the areas of social prescribing and nature therapy,” Tamsin said. “It's been amazing to see the work that is being done to develop accessible, grassroots interventions that can improve health and wellbeing, and address the loneliness epidemic.

“I'm about to submit my PhD and am excited and inspired to commence postdoctoral work in this area to develop meaningful, scalable programs to help people reconnect with nature and their communities.”

Media contact

Sharlene King, Media Office at Southern Cross University +61 429 661 349 or [email protected]