Green time: Just what the doctor ordered

A man walks on a country road with a walking stick.

By Melissa Lem

With sniffly noses and sore throats still running rampant, many people are staying home to avoid catching a bug as this flu season winds up. But did you know that getting outside into green space could be just what the doctor ordered for a healthy immune system?

A 2007 study from Japan revealed that adults who took short trips to forests enjoyed dramatic improvements in their levels of cancer-fighting proteins and natural killer cells—the body’s first line of defence against pesky viruses. Incredibly, this boost in immune function lasted for more than 30 days after the visits! Further research demonstrated that just inhaling the scent of trees enhanced immune cell activity. Imagine how healthy you might be if you added a little green time into your routine every day!

If you do happen to find yourself in a hospital, harnessing the healing power of nature is one way to a faster recovery. A report from Pennsylvania in 1984 showed that post-surgical patients whose rooms looked out onto trees instead of a brick wall went home well a day sooner. Participants in a 2010 Maryland study rated a biopsy procedure as less painful when they were immersed in nature sights and sounds. What’s more, gardening therapy is now being used across Europe and North America to help rehabilitate everyone from head injury to heart attack patients.

So spread the word: a healthy city is a green city. Show your support for urban greening projects and don’t forget to reduce your own chances of a visit to the infirmary by heading outdoors with family and friends for regular green (or white!) time, all year long.

A member of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, Melissa Lem is a Toronto family doctor who also works in rural and remote communities across Canada. She can also be seen making regular appearances on CBC's Steven and Chris.