Ecotherapy for Depression

Medical Reviewer

What is proven to lift depression, decrease anger, fatigue and tension and is completely free? Answer: Ecotherapy. Green exercise activities such as gardening, cycling, walking or conservation activities have such a marked effect on mood, self-esteem and obesity reduction they should probably be prescribed.

Don't let the 'ecotherapy' label put you off. It may sound a bit new-age and wacky but it's the oldest and most natural thing around. We've known for some time that physical activity can be just as (and possibly more) effective in treating mild to moderate depression than antidepressant medication*. Most family doctors will even admit to prescribing antidepressants simply because of a lack of alternative treatment options. With the World Health Organization predicting depression to be the second largest cause of ill health by 2020, it€™s time to think outside the box and embrace viable alternative treatments.

The mental health charity Mind has commissioned studies into the benefits of ecotherapy. They now call for a new green agenda for mental health following some promising results. In one study, for example, 108 people participated in various green activities. Over 90 percent reported that participating in green activities improved fitness and activity levels as well as making them feel more relaxed, focused, motivated and satisfied. But it's not just about movement. Differences were found in those who were active outside compared to those who walked around indoors (e.g. a shopping mall). 90 percent of those outside reported increased levels of self-esteem compared with just 44 percent involved in indoor activity. So regular contact with the natural environment is important to achieve positive effects.

Access to green space doesn't mean having to find a spot in the wilderness (but that's fine), it's about getting to the park, finding open spaces or having a garden. And the effects of green access are quite interesting. If we look back just a couple of decades, two studies stand out. Prisoners in Michigan whose cells overlooked green spaces were 24 percent less likely to report sick**. In Pennsylvania post-operative patients whose rooms overlooked green spaces required fewer painkillers, complained less and had significantly shorter hospital stays.

Most people get a great deal from participating in green activities. Connecting with nature stimulates the senses and provides an escape from the stresses of modern life. It can be a shared and fun activity as much as a deeply personal and spiritual one. The colors, sounds and smells of nature can evoke something deep and transformative inside us.

When we consider the many side-effects of antidepressants such as drowsiness, nausea, constipation, weight gain, loss of sex-drive and more besides, it seems incredible that we ignore or dismiss something so entirely natural and free from side effects as our natural environment. Regular light activity has no side effects and yet it offers protection from type II diabetes, coronary heart disease and certain cancers. Not only does our sense of wellbeing improve, so does our immune system. If someone sold a product guaranteed to reduce morbidity rates by up to 50 percent*** the line would stretch for miles, yet it's right outside our door and it's free


  • Halliwell E. (2005), Up and Running? Exercise therapy and the treatment of mild or moderate depression in primary care, Mental Health Foundation, London.

** Moore E.O. (1981), 'A prison environment's effect on health care service demands', Journal of Environmental Systems 11: 17-34

*** Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (1996), Physical Activity and Health, a report of the Surgeon General, Washington DC