Celebrate Nature’s Health Benefits This Earth Day

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Wallace Stegner, the historian, environmentalist, and Pulitzer Prize–winning author, penned his famous Wilderness Letter in 1960, in which he articulated the value of preserving pristine, wild lands for the good of the future of the human race, as well as the environment:

“Without any remaining wilderness we are committed wholly, without chance for even momentary reflection and rest, to a headlong drive into our technological termite-life… We need wilderness preserved—as much of it as is still left, and as many kinds—because it was the challenge against which our character as a people was formed. The reminder and the reassurance that it is still there is good for our spiritual health even if we never once in ten years set foot in it.”

Today, scientists are conducting studies that quantify Stegner’s premise—that nature can be good for our spiritual health even if we don’t often visit it. Of course, actually stepping out in nature is of even greater benefit to our health and well-being. (Not to mention our diets: a recent study published in the journal Appetite found that even just thinking about a forest or nature walk can minimize chocolate cravings.)

Three recent books do a great job of summarizing the nature-health connection—John J. Ratey, MD, and Richard Manning’s Go Wild: Free Your Body and Mind from the Afflictions of Modern Civilization (2014), Florence Williams’s The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative (2017), and Christopher McDougall’s Natural Born Heroes: Mastering the Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance (2015). By the time you finish reading them, you may decide to cancel your medical appointments and head straight to the woods instead.

In the Mood
You don’t have to be knee-deep in mud to get benefits from the wilderness. Wallace Stegner called it back in the 1960s: simply viewing nature and knowing it’s there can create calm. In Go Wild, Ratey and Manning observe that “anxiety, anger and aggression” are positively impacted (i.e., reduced) by merely driving by the woods. As they tell it, in the late 1970s, the first of these studies began when Roger S. Ulrich saw drivers taking tree-lined roads rather than the freeway to get to a popular destination in Ann Arbor, MI. He wondered if they took that route because it offered some benefit. Ulrich studied the production of alpha waves, which are associated with serotonin creation and the minimization of depression, and found that the drivers taking the scenic route produced more alpha waves than those on roads without as many trees or natural vistas. Similar studies followed suit. In Taiwan, study subjects experienced therapeutic effects after simply looking at streams, valleys, and farms; the heart rates of research subjects in a Japanese study decreased after looking at scenes of nature for twenty minutes.

Training Muscles and Minds
And while the wilderness is great for your mood, it’s even better for your muscles—and your mind-set. Stegner, again, knew it: wilderness forms character. The “character” components of mythic, heroic acts are just one part of what Christopher McDougall studies in Natural Born Heroes. McDougall makes the case that specific kinds of movements over natural terrains “re-wild” the psyche and engage muscle systems in ways that help an athlete jump higher, fight stronger, and run longer. Heroes aren’t born, he argues, they’re trained by exposure and engagement with nature, which he calls “Red Bull for the brain.”

As for the mental aspect of hero training, McDougall cites a study out of the University of Michigan that showed higher cognitive function among people who’d been walking in a planted area compared with those who’d wandered through a concrete downtown. His label for the study captures the essence of the divide: “Your Brain in the Woods vs. Your Brain on Asphalt.”

Cheaper Than Therapy
In The Nature Fix, Florence Williams notes that wooded walks are a very popular area of study all over the world, from Finland to Japan. According to the crowd-sourced Mappiness iPhone app that she discusses in the book, people’s happiest moments occur on mountains and in the woods; the least happy moments are, no surprise, found in the concrete jungle. She discusses how the Japanese practice of Shinrin-yoku (“forest bathing”) is being studied by scientists, who have found that forest walks, compared to urban walks, decrease stress-hormone levels, bring down sympathetic nerve activity, lower blood pressure, and decrease heart rates.

Williams cites “biophilia” as inherent in us all. The term, coined by psychoanalyst Erich Fromm and popularized by author E. O. Wilson, describes humans’ innate tendency to want to connect with nature and other beings. “Naturalistic outdoor environments in general remain some of the only places where we engage all five senses, and thus, by definition, are fully, physically alive,” she writes.

So don’t just read about nature this Earth Day—go out to the woods, or the beach, or the mountains and find your own path to physical, mental, and spiritual health. Then come home resolved to help preserve and promote nature for future generations.

Susan Gerhard is a writer-editor and athletic trainer living in San Francisco.

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