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The Healing Power of Nature

Science and popular culture may soon be starting to appreciate something that you have likely known for a long time—being in nature benefits the human body, mind, and spirit.

It comes as no surprise to hear that being outside in the woods, surrounded by living, breathing plants, birds, and animals, can decrease your stress levels, improve your mood and fight depression, improve your memory, and improve your general sense of well-being. If you’re walking and getting your heart rate up, all the better. Though many of us have intuited or directly experienced these benefits ourselves, scientific research and books about the subject are on the rise.

For the first time in history, more people throughout the world live in cities than in rural areas. More of us spend our days inside in environments devoid of natural influence. Combined with the rapid rise of technology in our everyday lives, from computers and tv’s to ipads and smartphones, more and more people have limited time, access, and desire to experience the natural world. Author Richard Louv calls the result ‘nature deficit disorder’. Though Louv’s work initially focused on the negative impacts when children are removed from nature exposure, he and many others have expanded their scope to the wider benefits for both adults and children of regular access to the outdoors.

Florence Williams, author of The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative, points out that we don’t need to find pristine, remote places to enjoy nature’s benefits. Even city parks or pictures of nature can help reduce stress and help hospital patients heal faster. Research in Finland found that after just 15 minutes of time sitting outside in a park or a forest, people began to feel psychologically restored. These feelings increased after a short walk, and were enhanced by a hike in the forest.

The study that kicked off much interest in this subject in the mid 1980’s by environmental psychologist Roger Ulrich examined the medical records of people recovering from gallbladder surgery at a suburban Pennsylvania hospital. All other things being equal, patients with bedside windows looking out on leafy trees healed, on average, a day faster, needed significantly less pain medication and had fewer postsurgical complications than patients who instead saw a brick wall.

Now some people are shifting their focus from incidental exposure to nature to actively seeking the potential healing properties of the natural world. The Japanese have been promoting the benefits of spending time in forests for decades. A popular practice in Japan, called Shinrin-yoku, which translates to forest-bathing, is the intentional process of soaking up the sights, smells, and sounds of a natural setting to maximize physical and mental health. This trend is growing in popularity in the U.S., with retreat centers like Kripalu and Canyon Ranch offering in depth sessions devoted to the topic. Forest bathing combines many recent lessons of nature therapy—turn off your devices, slow down, and focus on your senses and your breath in a beautiful, natural environment.

Those of us that know and love the landscapes of western Massachusetts will likely not be surprised by any of these trends or studies. The woods, rivers, and farms we are lucky to see, walk, or visit on a regular basis have benefited our bodies and brains in ways we may consciously appreciate, or maybe we simply know we love being outside in this special region.

Perhaps as more people realize the human health benefits of nature, support for the permanent conservation of places to provide access to nature will grow as well. FLT has been working to conserve lands that matter to people for 30 years, and with your support, we will continue to save places that offer people a natural refuge forever.


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