The heal­ing power of na­ture

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

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 shin-rin 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.

SUB­MIT­TED PHOTO — SCHUYLKILL CEN­TER

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

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