Take a walk in nature for balance and restoration – it’s cheaper than therapy

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FEATURE — Before starting a career in public health, I was a full-time therapist at a behavioral health center. I saw firsthand how therapeutic interventions can help people with mental illness regain hope and stability. Yet there were those who didn’t seem to respond to traditional “talk therapy.” 

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Almost out of desperation, I started taking a few of them walking or hiking along nearby trails and canyons. I saw them visibly relax and breathe deeper. We did less talking and more moving and observing in silence. What conversations we shared focused on the present experience. The transformation wasn’t permanent, but it was noticeable.

The concept of nature playing a role in the treatment of behavioral disorders is not new. Gardens and farms associated with mental hospitals were once commonplace in Europe.

“Ecotherapy,” which is loosely defined but usually consists of tasks or exercises in an outdoor environment, has been well-established in our time. Therapeutic gardens, labyrinths, ropes courses and teen wilderness programs would all qualify.

There is a growing body of research suggesting that spending time in natural settings is beneficial to the body and brain. For many of us, it’s instinctive – which helps explain the idea of biophilia, or the human tendency to be drawn to nature and its many life forms. Are we hard-wired to spend time in the outdoors, and can that drive be subdued by the demands of modern living?

The Encyclopaedia Britannica, in a discussion on the biophilia hypothesis, notes that changes in human/nature interactions have been “made possible by the construction of enclosed and relatively sterile spaces, from homes to workplaces to cars, in which modern humans were sheltered from the elements of nature and in which many, particularly people living in more developed countries, now spend the majority of their time.”

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Richard Louv, author of “Last Child in the Woods,” asserts that urbanized children with too much screen time suffer from what he terms “nature-deficit disorder.” He argues that time spent in nature is essential for the overall health of people of all ages.

A study published in the 2004 American Journal of Public Health found that children diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder had their symptoms significantly lowered when put into natural settings. After being taken on 20-minute nature walks, these children were able to behave just like their non-ADHD peers for the rest of the day.

Psychologists Rachel and Stephen Kaplan came up with the attention restoration theory in the 1980s, which has influenced environmental landscapers and designers ever since. They observed that people living in city environments are so constantly stimulated that their attention becomes exhausted. This can lead to mental fatigue, stress and depression. 

Exposure to nature, on the other hand, captures our attention with no effort on our part. Been fascinated with the pleasant sights, sounds and smells of natural settings gives our brain a break and restores our attention level. There is something about being in the natural world that opens our senses to something larger than ourselves. It amazes and delights humans from all cultures.

Beethoven took long walks in the woods of Vienna to keep his creative genius flowing. Many great thinkers, inventors, authors and artists took long walks in the outdoors on a regular basis. They include Tchaikovsky, Nietzsche, Tolstoy, Freud, Dickens, Tolstoy, Asimov and Muir. Albert Einstein, himself an avid walker, said, “Look deep into nature and then you will understand everything better.”

There are many benefits of spending time in nature, some more obvious than others, including:

  • Enhanced immune system functioning.
  • Reduced blood pressure.
  • Decreased risk of cardiovascular disease. 
  • Reduced stress.
  • Reduced anxiety.
  • Improved mood.
  • Increased ability to focus, even in children with ADHD.
  • Accelerated healing from surgery or illness.
  • Increased energy level.
  • Improved sleep.
  • Improved self-awareness and positive body image.
  • Improved cognitive functioning.
  • Boosted results of exercise.

In the 1980s, the Japanese government became convinced that time spent in forests was so beneficial that it implemented a practice called “shinrin-yoku,” meaning “forest bathing.” According to shinrin-yoku.org, “the idea is simple: if a person simply visits a natural area and walks in a relaxed way there are calming, rejuvenating and restorative benefits to be achieved … there have been many scientific studies that are demonstrating the mechanisms behind the healing effects of simply being in wild and natural areas.” 

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The practice is now integrated into Japan’s health care system and is covered by insurance. Shinrin-yoku has spread to the United States, where certified forest therapy guides can be hired to lead participants on mindful walks through natural settings.

I’m not one to discourage people from spending resources on interventions that help and heal. I’ve seen mental health therapy have remarkable results. But trust me, you don’t need a therapist to guide you through a meaningful experience in the outdoors. 

Whether we call it biophilia, instinct or a spiritual yearning, all you have to do is show up and nature will take care of the rest. Enter the woods, follow a trail or stream or climb a mountainside. Inhale the scent of a pine forest. Listen to the sound of water lapping a lake shore or bubbling down a creek. Take in the inspiring views of red sandstone cliffs and deep canyons.

Become familiar with your area‘s natural places. Choose some favorites and invite others. Go often, you won’t get a bill!

Written by DAVID HEATON, Southwest Utah Public Health Department Licensed Clinical Social Worker.

This article was originally published in the Summer 2018 issue of HEALTH Magazine.

Copyright © Southwest Utah Public Health Foundation, all rights reserved.

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