A park a day…

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We’re increasingly stressed, and so are our kids. Their rates of anxiety have surged by 875 per cent over the past decade, and that’s just for children under 14. But there’s something that can help, and it’s free.

Nature is good for us primarily because it acts on stress. Earlier this year, United States science journalist Aaron Reuben tallied more than 450 studies showing a positive connection between nature and human health.

You don’t need a lot of it, either: a recent British study of 20,000 adults found that spending two hours per week in a park provided the same benefits as five.

But for those able to devote a weekend to the wilderness, nature appears to act like a deep-clean for the brain: people emerge better able to concentrate, problem-solve, and think creatively.

In other words, a research-approved remedy for our increasing rates of depression, anxiety and health problems costs us nothing extra. We simply need to use a resource that we’re already paying to maintain for other purposes.

The Department of Conservation is a health provider, and its land—a third of New Zealand—a massive therapeutic facility. So how do we get people there? How do we teach them about it? How do we help them use it?

These connections are starting to be made. DOC’s Healthy Nature, Healthy People initiative, a partnership with the Mental Health Foundation, is a step in the right direction—it’s based on the pioneering Parks Australia programme that saw the concept of ‘nature prescriptions’ spread around the world. But it needs to be scaled up a thousand times. It needs funding, support and other partnerships.

Then there’s Federated Mountain Clubs, its members overflowing with knowledge and goodwill, but facing an ageing membership and lacking connection with young people.

We need better connections between healthcare providers and the people who manage and advocate for our outdoor places. We need better infrastructure to help our diverse population, with its various needs, to access these places. And we need better information about how much our conservation land can help us.

Imagine if we designated areas ‘therapy forests’ or ‘therapy beaches’ or ‘therapy valleys’, and there was a subsidised bus that took you there on Saturdays, and once you got there, a track that was good enough for strollers and wheelchairs, too.

We can learn from the many successful initiatives overseas. In the United States, the non-profit Park Rx connects healthcare providers with park areas or non-profits that help improve access among groups of people who typically don’t go bushwalking or tramping. Community group Unlikely Hikers provides support for people living with disability to access parks, as well as people who feel they don’t fit in with traditional tramping clubs. Hike It Baby does the same thing for parents with young children.

We underestimate what can be learned and gained from time outdoors. On my way to meet the Rapsey family (see page 32), I hitchhiked to Nelson Lakes National Park with an high-school outdoor education instructor (the lack of transport between Nelson and its proximate national park is another story). She told me outdoor education was falling out of favour among students—the subject was perceived as a dead-end, as fun rather than useful, not the kind of thing that smart kids might do.

Nature shouldn’t really be an option, but a default, like maths, like English, like eating five fruits or vegetables a day. Nature is the environment that our bodies evolved to fit, not the cities we’ve made for ourselves. Nature activates our parasympathetic nervous system, the ‘rest-and-digest’ process that’s the opposite of the ‘fight-or-flight’ one.

Our bodies know it’s home, even if we don’t.

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