The healing power of nature

The forests at the Schuylkill Center have healing power — trees elevate your mood, boost your immune system, calm your breathing, slow your hear rate and more.

There’s so much to worry about these days, and everyone — yeah, me too — seems remarkably stressed.

Take the weather. While Philadelphians enjoyed a relatively mild summer where (I’m fairly sure) it never hit 100 degrees and barely topped 90 only a few times, it was a remarkably horrific season worldwide, with record-setting hurricanes battering the South, wildfires raging across the West, Europe suffering through a blistering heat wave named Lucifer, Portugal mired in a hellacious drought and the Indian subcontinent suffering the one-two punch of first record heat and then some of the worst monsoons ever, killing at least 1,200 people thus far.

Then there are the unique political tensions of the moment, with so many of us divided over so many things. We’re either glued to cable news for that daily fix or taking to the streets protesting everything from the continuing Russian investigations to those noxious neo-Nazis and fascists in Charlottesville, reminding the world that Black Lives Matter and we should March for Science.

Throw in North Korea’s missile rattling, and these three together make this easily the tensest and most intense summer since Watergate and Vietnam in the early 1970s.

So we need nature now more than ever.

Yes, nature. In addition to providing us with food and oxygen while absorbing ever increasing levels of stormwater, filtering noise, removing air pollution and sopping up carbon dioxide, green plants perform a critical service.

Because green plants and open spaces heal us. Literally.

Right now, at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia clinic on Paoli Avenue in Roxborough, pediatricians are prescribing nature time to kids to assist them in a range of ills, from ADHD to obesity. Called NaturePHL, this program, pioneered by the Schuylkill Center and reported in the news section here last month, is the first nature prescription program in Pennsylvania and has doctors asking parents to bring children into nature to soothe their ills.

Because as journalist Florence Williams details in her excellent book, “The Nature Fix,” nature heals people. Walking in a forest lowers your blood pressure, slows your breathing, uplifts your mood, boosts your immune system, lowers stress hormones and much more. Japanese doctors now prescribe what they call shinrin yoku, literally “forest bathing,” where people visit forests to soak in what writer Richard Louv has dubbed “Vitamin N.”

In a famous experiment, Williams reports that a Japanese scientist simply misted 52 infants with pine scent and noticed their heart rate immediately lowering. (Other substances had no effect.) His conclusion: we are hardwired to respond to some volatile compounds in nature, like pine scent.

The University of Utah’s David Strayer, Williams writes, has been working with students in Outward Bound, a backpacking adventure program, and found they perform 50 percent better on creative problem-solving tasks after three days of being in the wilderness. Strayer has been promulgating his three-day effect, which Williams says is “a kind of cleaning of the mental windshield that occurs when we’ve been immersed in nature long enough.”

In England, university researchers have been analyzing mental health data from 10,000 city dwellers and mapped where these people had lived over almost two decades. They found, Williams writes, “that people living near more green space reported less mental distress, even after adjusting for income, education and employment (all of which are also correlated with health). In 2009, a team of Dutch researchers found a lower incidence of 15 diseases — including depression, anxiety, heart disease, diabetes, asthma and migraines — in people who lived within about a half mile of green space.” She continues, “And in 2015 an international team overlaid health questionnaire responses from more than 31,000 Toronto residents onto a map of the city, block by block. Those living on blocks with more trees showed a boost in heart and metabolic health equivalent to what one would experience from a $20,000 gain in income. Lower mortality and fewer stress hormones circulating in the blood have also been connected to living close to green space.”

The power of green: it makes you healthier, smarter and calmer.

The politics of the day got you down? Of course. Watching too much cable news? Understandable. Spending a lot of much time engaged in political activism? Thank you. But don’t forget to recharge your spirit and nourish your body.

Our NaturePHL website, naturePHL.org, allows Philadelphians to find a park near them to walk in green space. For Roxborough, you have it easy: simple come to the Schuylkill Center for a walk, and let nature heal you. Grab a map, find our Pine Grove, have a seat on a stump and engage in some forest bathing. You’re welcome.

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

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