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ON THE SCENE: Is being out in nature healing?

March 15, 2019
By NAJ WIKOFF , Lake Placid News

An increasing body of evidence says yes - being out in nature is healing - according to Florence Williams, author of "The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative."

What makes us happy? For a long time, research has pointed to having good relationships, being engaged with one's community, meeting one's basic needs of food, housing and income, getting exercise, and being involved in some cause more significant than one's self, and spending time helping others. But what about the environment we live in? Does that matter, and if so, does it matter in some significant way?

To discover the answer, in 2010 George MacKerron, a behavioral economist at the University of Sussex, came up with the App Mappiness as a means of measuring what people were doing and where they were when they were happiest. Within a year, 20,000 people downloaded his app agreeing to be a part of his study, and within a few years, he had more than 3.5 million data points from more than 65,000 people across the globe.

Article Photos

Sitting on a rock in the wilderness
(Photo provided)

Not surprising, he learned that people are least happy when they are sick in bed, and most happy when having good relationships. What did surprise him was not how vital relationships, having a satisfying job or giving of yourself to help others was; rather, it was important where you are. He learned that people are happiest in nature, be that in New York's Central Park, floating on a pond, fly fishing, lying on one's back looking up at the stars, or just strolling through the woods. Being out in nature mattered the most.

In the mid-19th century, Frederick Law Olmsted was struck by how often urban people visited cemeteries. He didn't think it was only to honor the dead, as he noticed that people spent much of their time strolling about the pathways or sitting under trees. He felt that they were seeking a relaxing experience in nature and what they truly desired was a large natural setting without the gravestones.

At the time, setting aside urban land for public enjoyment was a radical idea. Men of business thought that such spaces could be better used as sites for business and industry. Olmsted fought back, demonstrating his theories through the design of Prospect Park in Brooklyn, Central Park in New York, Boston's Emerald Necklace and Montreal's Mount Royal.

What woke Olmsted to shifting from complaining about the urban environment to creating such parks was a visit to Birkenhead Park, a small public space in the suburb of Liverpool in 1850. A light went off in his head; he connected his experiences as a youth being out in nature with his dad to a potential solution. For him, it was to create a park so large that once inside, the sounds and hustle of urban life were removed and the smell of grass, the rustle of leaves, and the chirp of a bird took over.

Research into the benefits of being in nature began with pioneers like Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau who, after experiencing his recovery from tuberculosis during an extended visit to the Adirondacks in 1873, decided to test his theory that breathing cold, clean air could do the same for others. His experience and reading the writings of Dr. Hermann Bremer's describing his success in a rest cure, led to his founding the Adirondack Cottage Sanitarium in 1885 in Saranac Lake. While his work and success spawned a huge following, it wasn't until research conducted by Dr. Roger Ulrich, professor of Health Facilities Design at Texas A&M University, that the medical benefits of just viewing nature took hold.

"I began to wonder about practical applications and asked myself, 'Which groups of people experience a lot of emotional duress and might benefit from a view of nature?'" said Ulrich. "The answer was hospital patients and prisoners."

Ulrich started his research in 1972 by studying the recovery records of cholecystectomy patients in a Pennsylvania hospital. He wanted to know, all treatment and other factors being the same, "Did those who had a view of nature have a shorter postoperative stay than those who did not?" The answer was a resounding yes by 10 percent or more along with an equal reduction in required medicine. His research sent a shock wave through the health industry and revolutionized hospital design, as such reductions when applied to thousands of patients would result in significant financial savings in medical outcomes.

But what of being out in nature itself? Think of the beliefs held by such pioneers as Olmsted, Trudeau and proponents such as U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, known for extended his stays in nature, and John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club. Since 2003, the Japanese government has invested more than $4 million in what has come to be known as forest bathing, using experiences in natures as a means of treating stress.

Their studies, led by the physical anthropologist Yoshifumi Miyazaki and his colleague Juyoung, both of the Chiba University, found that walks in nature resulted in a 12 percent decrease in cortisol levels, a 7 percent decrease in sympathetic nerve activity, a 1.4 decrease in blood pressure, and a 6 percent decrease in the heart rate. Furthermore, the calming impact of being out in nature lasted. Since the release of their studies, one-quarter of the Japanese have participated in some form of forest bathing.

Building on their work, researchers in South Korea focused on the impact the forest smells, particularly given off by cedar, pine and other evergreens. Their research demonstrated that subjects who smelled the stem oils from these trees experienced a 20 percent increase in NK cells, which protect us from disease agents. In other words, our forests not only absorb carbon out of the atmosphere, but our taking in the scents of the cedars, hemlocks and other trees can strengthen our immune system.

Additional research has gone into the impact of our hearing birds trilling in the morning over those who do not, as well as just seeing the stars at night. One study inspires another, and here we live in one of the healthiest environments on Earth, an environment that Adirondack guide and troubadour Wayne Failing credits for his being alive and able to walk, ski and play music again.

At 11:30 p.m., Feb. 5, 2013, Lake Placid's Wayne Failing nearly died in a head-on car crash in the Bahamas.

"I was dying in a ditch in a foreign country," said Failing. "I flatlined twice that night. I was flown in an air ambulance to the Albany Medical Center where I spent a month in a level one trauma center as they tried to put everything back together. The prognosis wasn't good. The doctors said I would never walk again. The damage was so extensive in the elbow of right arm, they considered amputation."

Following surgery, Failing spent a week in a rehab center where he said they taught him how to live in a wheelchair. Not liking that program, he asked to be sent back to the Adirondacks where he spent a lot of time in the woods coupled with 57 visits to Adirondack Health's physical therapy department. His goal was to be able to walk, fly fish with his right arm, and strum his guitar. When not in rehab, he spent a lot of time in a wheelchair on his deck taking in the sights, sounds and smells of nature.

"I had a crushed right lung, all my limbs were broken, my pelvis split in half, the tissue around my heart was separated, and my spinal column was fused to my Dural Tube," said Failing. "That I'm alive and walking is a miracle. We have a very powerful place here in the Adirondacks. We have a place where people can come, heal and rejuvenate. The healing power of nature is huge. At the same time, I give a lot of credit to the Adirondack Medical Center's physical therapy department."

Williams's book "The Nature Fix," is full of examples of evidenced-based research on how nature was a vital component of Failing's return to health and his achieving his goals. The book also lays out a method for tapping into nature to sustain our emotional, physical and mental well-being.

The lessons Williams gained from her exploration of the research being conducted on the healing benefits of nature begins with the importance of daily doses of nature, which can be hearing bird calls in the morning, access to daylight, especially morning light, seeing trees outside, having plants in our house and experiencing our pets. Added to that should be weekly outings into nature, be it a walk in a park, a stroll around or a swim in Mirror Lake, places that take us away from work and ideally the sight and sounds of daily life. At least once a month, spend a full day out in nature, ski the length of the Jackrabbit Trail, climb a mountain, paddle out to Weller Pond. And finally, at least twice a year, spend an extended period in nature. Canoe from Long Lake to Tupper Lake, walk the Northville Placid Trail. Have an adventure in nature.

We are fortunate to live in nature's own best wellness center. Let's start taking full advantage of this gift we have, make every effort to preserve it for the benefit of future generations, and promote these assets to encourage others to take advantage of this remarkable resource. Failing is just one example of how nature can help us heal.

 
 

 

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