Expanded curfew for Fairmount Park

Exposure to nature, such as this scene in Fairmount Park, can be beneficial to your health. 

It’s still January, many of us still committed to making, breaking and even adjusting our resolutions. And while a lot of people (like me) resolved to lose weight, eat better, and be more active, burgeoning amounts of research indicate that one simple action actually helps people be happier and healthier, two strong avenues to living longer.

What’s this miracle cure? Time in nature.

And luckily, people up here in Roxborough have access to tons of nature. The Wissahickon anchors one whole border of Roxborough, the River Trail another, and in between are Germany Hill, my Schuylkill Center, Gorgas Park, and pocket parks here and there.

The good people of Roxborough are also skeptical, so here is just the tip of an emerging iceberg of evidence that backs up my claim. A researcher in the 1980s famously studied gallbladder surgery patients at a Pennsylvania hospital, and found this surprise. Looking at one set of patients who could see a tree outside of their hospital room window, and another set whose window faced a brick wall, the patients who saw the tree recovered faster, took less medications while there, and their nurses reported they had better attitudes. This from just seeing one tree.

Then, an app named Mappiness went live in 2010, with people using it telling the app what they were doing when it pinged them, and offering their mood on a sliding scale. While people were – no surprise – happiest with friends and loved ones and least happy on rainy days and at work, the researcher who launched the app noted study participants are “significantly and substantially happier outdoors in all green or natural habitat types than they are in urban environments.”

Nature makes us happy – and yet 93% of the time, users reported being indoors or in cars.

A Japanese researcher has been a leader in the global movement of “forest bathing,” an emerging technique of spending mindful time in nature for its health benefits. “Bathing” of course is metaphoric, indicating time immersed in nature, and there are activities that engage all five senses in forest bathing experiences. Don’t dismiss this as New Age folderol: both the Japanese and South Korean governments are all in, funding forest bathing centers while setting aside parkland for this specific reason. The researcher, Dr. Qi Ling, noted that his forest bathing students experienced significant decreases in cortisol, the steroid we give off when stressed out, as well as decreases in blood pressure and heart rate.

Here’s the kicker: people who produce chronically high cortisol levels and high blood pressure are more prone to heart disease, metabolic disease, dementia and depression.

This same researcher then turned his attention to overly stressed Japanese businessmen, taking them on three-day forest camping trips where they hike for a few hours daily. He measured their blood, and found that white blood cells called natural killer (or NK) cells increased by 40% in just three days. NK cells are the ones that seek out and try to destroy cancer cells and pathogens. The boost lasted for a full week, and one month later, the count was still 15% higher. He also took businessmen on urban walking trips of the same duration, where NK cell levels did not change. A one-hour walk in a city park did elevate NK cells, interestingly, but the surge did not last as long.

In a separate study, Dr. Li put people up in a Japanese hotel room for three nights, where they breathed cypress oils from a steam vaporizer. This alone boosted NK cells 20% – with the participants saying they felt less fatigued. A different researcher sprayed pine scent in a hospital's newborn ward (so the babies have never been outdoors once in their young lives), and the infant heart rate dropped four points.

Intrigued by the power of smell – and thinking that the chemicals many trees emit are beneficial – Dr. Li conducted a massive study across Japan. It showed a direct correlation between a larger percentage of forest coverage and lower rates of cancer deaths. He found the correlation particularly significant for uterine, breast and lung cancers in women, and prostate, liver and colon cancer in men. (Male deaths from prostate cancer dropped 20%, which is huge, in areas with high amounts of trees.) Dr. Li, who now sleeps every night with a vaporizer giving off cypress oils, says flat out that “a significant amount of forest area can contribute to a lower incidence of cancer.”

Similarly, the immune-boosting killer T cells of women with breast cancer increased after a two-week forest visit and stayed elevated for 14 days afterwards.

Yup, time in nature likely prolongs life.

And if your New Year's resolution is to work out, yet another study notes that people who were active in nature – running through a forest, say –were more likely to achieve their goals and more likely to continue the practice than people running indoors.

There are many more studies like this: Forests elevate our mood, birdsong quiets our nerves, green is easy on the eyes and visually appealing. But you get the drift.

All of this explains why the Schuylkill Center has been working with CHOP’s Roxborough clinic to prescribe nature time to kids on their wellness visits. In a program called Nature PHL, CHOP docs here and at Cobbs Creek are sending kids into the outdoors, with a team of Nature Navigators helping them get there and a website, NaturePHL.org, showing Philadelphians where the nearest green spaces are.

For you, dear reader, the Schuylkill Center offers monthly Wellness Saturday programs on the third Saturday of the month, and forest bathing is one of the activities in heavy rotation. We also boast a pine grove where you can immerse yourself in pinene, and our trails are walkable, runnable – and free. So are those at the Wissahickon, as is the Schuylkill River Trail.

But as I noted, we are lucky in Roxborough. Unlike other communities in Philadelphia, we have great access to greenspace. Please use it: you’ll live longer, happier, and healthier.

Mike Weilbacher directs the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Roxborough, tweets @SCEEMike, and can be reached at mike@schuylkillcenter.org

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