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Scotland’s Shetland Islands are windswept and rugged, full of wide-open vistas, thousands of squawking migratory birds, awesome rock formations, and winding trails. An epic place for long, lingering walks and time spent decompressing in the joys of raw nature.

It just so happens that doctors are increasingly starting to realize time spent outdoors can be an excellent treatment for chronic health issues. So doctors in the Shetlands are now issuing “nature prescriptions” as part of an initiative to address health issues without drugs if you can imagine that.

For everything from high blood pressure to diabetes, anxiety, and depression, the medical community is learning (though lots of us have always known) that many ailments and diseases can be treated with activities like birdwatching, maybe a little kayaking, perhaps combing a beach for shells, even skipping pebbles across a slow-moving stream. Even just sitting silently in a forest, meditating (see: Japan, forest bathing).

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NHS Shetland, the health authority in the Scottish archipelago, has authorized doctors to prescribe brushes with nature not as replacements for traditional health care, at least not exclusively, but as a healthy supplement. The hope is the program will be a success and open others’ eyes in the traditional medical community to such non-traditional and subtle treatments for body and mind.

“We would like this to be picked up by other areas or health boards,” said Helen Moncrieff, a health manager in the Shetland. “There is so much evidence that nature is good for us, and this is a simple way to get people outdoors and experiencing nature in a city or a wilder place like Shetland,” she said.

Hiking, swimming, cycling—just getting outdoors and moving have been shown to have dramatically beneficial health effects, but the nature prescription program also taps into a connection with wilderness as a means to provide an easy kind of self-care.

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Authorities have published a seasonal calendar with the help of a bird watching society filled with suggestions to get outside and let nature work its magic.

Appreciate a passing cloud, the programs suggests. Plop down in the grass and make a daisy chain. “Really look at a lichen.” Stare out to the sea and watch for passing whales. On a brisk, windy and rainy day, stand still, close your eyes and let the wind rush past and “feel the exhilaration of wind and rain on your face.”

Connect with the elements, in other words. Feel a part of the natural world, and, well, heal thyself. No billing department necessary.


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