Starting today, it may not be such a bad thing if your supervisor, professor or colleague tells you to take a hike.

NatureRx@UMD, an initiative launching today (not so coincidentally Earth Day), encourages students, faculty and staff to take advantage of the University of Maryland campus' status as an arboretum (so named by the American Public Gardens Association in 2008) by getting outside to relieve stress and anxiety and benefit their overall health.

Spearheaded by kinesiology Assistant Professor Jennifer Roberts and Associate Professor Shannon Jette, Nature Rx@UMD was inspired by the national Park Rx America movement, which was launched by pediatrician Robert Zarr and urges health care providers to prescribe time outside as part of a preventative or therapeutic treatment plan for patients.

Jennifer RobertsTaking a few minutes outside to decompress can be “another option for the ways students can deal with mental distress,” said Roberts. “Much of the research has shown several public health benefits from spending time in nature…not only with respect to mental health, but also physical health.”

A lineup of events marking the launch today includes yoga at La Plata Turf, a qi gong session at the Memorial Chapel’s labyrinth, and a “climb and clean” featuring a stream cleanup followed by a climbing wall-centric pizza party. Click here for a schedule and further details.

NatureRx@UMD will eventually include a club to teach students best safety practices for outdoor activities, and the organizers are discussing a possible undergraduate course focused on the mental and physical health benefits of exposure to the natural world. The team is also working with the University Health Center, University Recreation and Wellness, and other partners to help incorporate nature into students’ routines.

Shannon Jette“We view it as something to hopefully help students find and discover some of the amazing spaces that we have on campus as resources, but also with the hope that they’ll start to build community and connect to others—or even if it’s a solitary endeavor, have this as one way to help them reduce stress and promote mental health and well-being,” said Jette.

If all goes to plan, taking time to go outside may become part of the fabric of life on campus for students, faculty and staff. “What if we make the concepts behind NatureRx part of our campus identity?” said Dr. Boris Lushniak, dean of the School of Public Health. “We know that physical activity and the de-stressing aspects of spending time in nature are good for you. Why do we need a prescription for it? Let’s make it an over-the-counter concept—it’s freely available to all.”

Roberts hopes that students, faculty and staff will start taking small steps toward incorporating the outdoors into their day-to-day lives.

“If you could just take a few minutes, put away the electronic device, just sit and be, and…have that moment where you’re just still in nature, from there you can continue on and explore other ways to engage yourself in nature,” she said.