Tap Into the Therapeutic Power of the Forest

By Mark Ellison, Ed.D.

What do you do that gives you energy, that fuels your ability to work and play? Do you have anything? Do you escape from the stress of life to allow your mind, body and spirit to heal?

There are so many benefits to our health from spending time in nature, particularly forests. Research has found that spending time in forests can increase attention capacity and creativity, lower blood pressure, strengthen the immune system and improve mood.

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Sunset from the Waterrock Knob Trail off the Blue Ridge Parkway (NC)

Are you tapping into the power of the forest as part of your plan to improve your health? It is a key ingredient that could take your health to the next level. It is the multiplier. If you are walking, biking, relaxing in an urban environment, then  you are getting health benefits. If you do the same in a natural setting like a forest, the benefits are multiplied because of the restorative aspects of nature that impact the body and brain, that are not present in urban settings.

The power of the forest can help you at work, school or home. The more time the better, but try to squeeze in 30 minutes to an hour each week and then gradually increase.The power lies in the ability to experience solitude free (mostly) from noise created by humans. You can enjoy the sound of a waterfall, a bird chirping, or the exhilaration of watching a sunset. These benefits, called soft fascination, allow your attention capacity to rest. Much like muscles after working out, attention becomes fatigued and inhibits the the ability to focus.

My challenge to you is next week find a “sit spot” and spend 30 minutes there. Write about what you are experiencing. Draw. Allow yourself to connect with nature. Enjoy the experience and let me know how it goes!

 

 

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Dr. Elizabeth Nisbet Discusses 30×30 Nature Challenge Research and Using Nature to Maximize Well-being

Organizations are desperately trying to identify ways to encourage improved employee health and well-being, and nature offers an underutilized and often overlooked opportunity for this. Some of the obstacles that have prevented nature from being embraced include many people not understanding the health benefits associated with nature contact, how these benefits impact work effectiveness, and methods that can be used to encourage  employees to spend time in nature. Connecting to nature has been made more difficult than it needs to be.

A model for how to encourage people to develop a connection with nature is the 30×30 Nature Challenge developed by the David Suzuki Foundation (DSF) in Canada. The 30×30 Nature Challenge is an annual program aimed at  increasing Canadians’ contact with the natural environment.To be involved in the challenge, participants voluntarily signed up on the DSF website before May 1st and pledged to spend a minimum of 30 minutes outdoors, in contact with nature, for 30 days during the month of May. A number of workplaces publicized the challenge and the DSF provided toolkits, designed specifically for employers, containing tips that encouraged employees to spend time outdoors and in nature. Individual participants received email updates and were able to visit the DSF 30×30 challenge website throughout the month of May for further suggestions on how to incorporate more nature contact into their daily life.

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In 2013 participants were involved in a research study conducted by the DSF and Dr. Elizabeth (Lisa) Nisbet, Assistant Professor in the Psychology Department at Trent University in Ontario.

Over 10,000 people participated in the research study, with 2,285 submitting information that could be utilized for analysis.The results revealed that overall, the 30×30 challenge was successful in encouraging participants to increase their nature contact. Participants also reported increased nature relatedness and well-being at the end of the challenge. “The 30×30 nature challenge was a voluntary commitment and the respondents were self-selected, but the results suggested that increased nature contact had benefits for increasing happiness,” said Nisbet.  Participants almost doubled their weekly nature contact participating in the challenge, and also had better moods and less stress at the end of the challenge.

Effects of the 30×30 Nature Challenge on Work Functioning
A number of workplaces across Canada publicized the challenge to their employees. At the beginning of the survey, respondents were asked if they had learned about the 30×30 challenge at work. Participants who indicated ‘yes’ were directed to three additional questions about job functioning. Participants were asked how satisfied they were with their job in the previous month, how well they were getting along with colleagues, and how productive they felt they were in their work role. Participants reported no changes in either job satisfaction or interactions with co-workers. However, people did feel they were being slightly more productive in their work roles at the end of the challenge.

I recently had the opportunity to talk with Dr. Elizabeth (Lisa) Nisbet about the 30×30 challenge and how organizations and communities can utilize the results of this study. Dr. Nisbet’s research has focused on individual differences in subjective connectedness with nature (nature relatedness or NR) and the links with health, well-being (happiness), and environmentally sustainable behaviour.

Hiking Research: What is the most important thing to take away from the results of the Nature Challenge?

Elizabeth (Lisa) Nisbet, Ph.D.

Elizabeth (Lisa) Nisbet, Ph.D.

Dr. Elizabeth Nisbet: The key finding (and maybe most exciting result) from the 30×30 nature challenge is it’s possible to change how we spend our time and, as a result, improve our well-being.  There is room in our busy lives for a few hours of nature contact each week.  The nature challenge participants were able to double their weekly nature time during the month of May, and this increased nature contact was associated with significant increases in happiness.  The way we spend our leisure time influences how we feel – physically and mentally – and this is within our control, to some extent.  In other words, if we know about nature’s effects on our well-being, we can make informed decisions about where to spend our time and choose environments that enhance rather than detract from our health.  By getting outdoors, for a walk, hike, or other activity in nature, we’re improving our psychological health but also strengthening our bond with the natural world.  This is good for us, and good for our environment.

Hiking Research: How can communities and organizations adapt the concept of the 30x 30 Nature Challenge for their own initiatives?

Dr. Elizabeth Nisbet: Because our modern lifestyles often separate us (physically and psychologically) from nature, many people may not get regular doses of nature contact.  By setting goals to spend time in nature we can ensure we don’t neglect this important connection.  The health benefits of nature contact are relevant for both individuals and organizations.  We benefit, in terms of our personal happiness, from time in nature, but there are also spillover effects.  The nature contact we have in our leisure time appears to carry over into other life domains.  In other words, connecting with nature contributes to our well-being even after we leave the natural environment and go back to our homes and workplaces.  People who have a strong sense of connection with the natural world are generally happier, and this has benefits for health and productivity.  The research on nature and greenspace shows that even having a view of nature from a window reduces our frustration and improves our well-being. Another benefit of connecting with nature is that it fosters greater concern for the natural environment.  People are more motivated to care for something if they feel connected to it. This connection with nature can foster social cohesion and thus strengthen communities as they work together.

Hiking Research: What are your suggestions for helping people disconnect from technology and to connect to nature?

Dr. Elizabeth Nisbet: It can be a challenge to unplug. Finding ways to incorporate nature contact into our routine is one way to ensure we get enough outdoor time.  Making regular time for nature, just like other health habits, even in small doses, is helpful for improving our well-being. Active commuting (biking, walking, etc.) to work or school is another way to connect with nearby urban nature. If distances make this impossible, then taking a walk during work breaks can restore our focus and boost our mood. In order to disconnect from technology and reconnect with our environment we may need to think about nature differently – not just as leisure, but as an essential part of our day and an important health practice.

Hiking Research: Describe the research projects you are currently involved with.

Dr. Elizabeth Nisbet: We have a number of nature contact studies going on in my lab. We are studying the effects of experiential environmental education on nature connectedness and environmental concern. We are also using a nature contact intervention (similar to the 30×30 challenge) to investigate how spending time in nature may affect students’ stress levels and psychological health.  Another research project underway is testing how citizen science experiences influence well-being and environmental concern.  Participants in our Wildlife CSI (Compost Scene Identification) study are contributing to actual research looking at how composting influences scavenger behaviour.  I am interested in how this, and other, citizen science ventures affect connectedness with nature as well as happiness. Learning about the plants and animals in our ecosystems may enhance our sense of connection with nature, our happiness, and motivate more environmentally sustainable behaviour.

Final Thoughts: The 30X30 Nature Challenge offers an excellent example of an initiative communities and organizations can utilize to encourage spending time in nature. Organizations can provide incentives for participation such as “wellness credits” that can be applied towards insurance premiums, or offering time “on the clock” for employees to spend time in nature as a group. Communities can use this type of initiative to encourage all residents to get outside, while targeting communities that are distressed and more likely to not have access to green space with special programs.

Will Living in a Greener Urban Setting Make You Happier?

A well-known song encourages us to “don’t worry, be happy.” When it comes to living in cities, we better worry about the quality of our green space if we want to be happy according to recent research.  A study by researchers Mathew White, Ian Alcock, Benedict W. Wheeler, and Michael H. Depledg at the European Centre for Environment and Human Health published in the April 2013 journal Psychological Science finds that people who live in areas with more green space show significantly lower mental distress (GHQ scores) and significantly higher well-being (life satisfaction). The study draws on over 18 years of data from 10,000 participants.

Flowers in Memorial Gardens near downtown Concord, NC offer an escape from the city.

Flowers in Memorial Gardens near downtown Concord, NC offer an escape from the city.
Photo by Mark Ellison

The analysis also  compared the beneficial effects of green space with other factors which influence well-being.  Living in an area with higher levels of green space was associated with improvements in well-being indicators similar to approximately a  third of that gained from being married, or a tenth as large as being employed vs. unemployed.

The authors describe urbanization as a threat to mental health and well-being. The effects at the individual level are small, but the potential benefits at a population level could be significant based on the results of this research, and should be an important consideration in policies aiming to protect and promote urban green spaces for well-being.

Living in urban areas has been found in numerous studies to be stressful and to negatively impact health. With over half the world’s population now living in urban settings finding ways to improve the livability of urban settings should be a high priority. Could increasing the happiness level of residents of an urban area be impacted simply by adding more green space? If people are happier, would they also be more inclined to be more considerate, and less hostile towards others?

Well-being and quality of life are important measures of the livability of a region. Urban planning should include ample green space to provide for the mental health and well-being of its current and future population. Failing to do so could have a negative impact on continued growth of a region (people do not want to live where the quality of life is low), as well as on public health.

So, yes, be happy. It just may be easier to be that way if you are in nature.

A Summer Planting Trees is Transformational for University of Ottawa Student

Laura Miller, a junior at the University of Ottawa (Canada) discovered a passion for the natural environment working as a tree planter  last summer in Sudbury, Ontario. Planting over 87,000 trees inspired her to return this year to try it again.  

Laura was intrigued recently by a presentation given by Alan Logan, ND who discussed how nature impacts health. During this she more fully realized how spending time in nature was impacting her. I recently had the opportunity to ask Laura a few questions about her tree planting experience and how it helped her become more aware of the importance of being connected to nature for health and effectiveness. We also discuss how spending time in nature has shaped her choice for a career. Her story is one I hope will inspire other college students to reconnect to nature and discover careers that keep them connected to it.

What are you studying at the University of Ottawa, and have you decided on a career path?

Laura Miller "happily exhausted" after a day of planting trees Photo courtesy of Laura Miller

Laura Miller “happily exhausted” after a day of planting trees
Photo courtesy Laura Miller

I am in second year of my Honours major in biology. My current academic vision is to go to vet school at the University of Guelph. I have always loved animals and have persuaded my parents to let me have almost every kind imaginable over the years. I currently work at a veterinary hospital as a vet assistant so this gives me valuable experience for vet school. However I am also a passionate outdoor enthusiast and am obsessed with every aspect of nature, so I am also looking at possible career paths where I would be able to interact with nature and help protect it, and promote its importance in our everyday lives. I guess right now my dream job would be to become a wildlife/exotic animal veterinarian, but I am just trying to keep my options open right now because I’m not really sure yet!

Describe the tree planting program where you worked last summer.

I searched hardcoretreeplanters.com which is a database of most tree planting companies in Canada.  I emailed my application to about 15 companies and chose A&M Reforestation near Sudbury, Ontario because they were the first to get back to me, and they had great safety training and very experienced staff. They also had great food! The season is roughly two months long, but depends on how fast people plant and the weather. In British Columbia the seasons can be up to 5-6 months long, which I hope to experience at least once. The first season is the hardest. You have to adapt to living in the bush and how to take care of your body so that you can plant thousands of trees everyday, which took me about a month before I actually started making any real money. I went back for a short summer plant in August and was 100% more successful; my best day then was 3,640 trees.

Why has this experience been so important for you? Was this a “transformational” experience in your life? Do you view yourself and the world differently than before?

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Laura Miller planting trees
Photo courtesy Laura Miller

This has definitely been a transformational experience! I learned a lot of life lessons and the effects of hard physical labour and nature on the body. I think it would be an excellent environment for studying the effects of nature on our physical and mental health because we are completely removed from civilization. I recently listened to a presentation by Dr. Alan Logan on his new book Your Brain on Nature, and everything he mentioned about the effects of nature on us clicked perfectly into place with what I experienced tree planting. For example, tree bark releases certain chemicals that cause us to feel healthier and happier, and I was surrounded by trees 24/7 for two months. Despite the hard work everyone out there is so much happier and alive than back in the city where most people don’t even see pictures of forests every day.

I also experienced the effects of being completely removed from our digitized civilization. Besides our camp’s noises, there was no trace of city noise pollution; no traffic, no sirens, no jumbo jets. It didn’t take very long before it felt like all the noise in my head began to leak into to silence of my new surroundings. Leaving your social life behind for two months is hard. But while treeplanting we are completely removed from EVERYTHING for six out of seven days a week for eight weeks, except for an emergency satellite phone. Being dropped in the middle of nowhere 10 hours away, with no connection to home, with 60 strangers, definitely removed me from my comfort level. Those strangers turned into my best friends and I know I will be friends with many of them for life. It was so cleansing because life was so simple. We planted, ate, slept, and thought about life. I think the whole treeplanting experience was a sort of meditation.

Treeplanting was the best and worst experience of my life, often at the same time. You will hear this exact phrase from just about anyone who has done it. It is because of the good times, but also I think because of how alive living out there makes you feel. As soon as I came home I had better study habits, more energy, more motivation, and better time management. I felt like this for about four months before city life finally got to me again and I lost a bit of the enthusiasm I had gained from the summer. I found this interesting because maybe spending extended periods of time in nature can hold you over for a time before you can get back outside.

How did this experience impact your career aspirations?

Enjoying the view of nature Photo courtesy Laura Miller

Enjoying the view of nature
Photo courtesy Laura Miller

I really want to go into a helping profession, so this and my love of animals point towards veterinary medicine. Before planting I knew I wanted to be a vet but I didn’t know where I wanted to go with it. Over the past year I now want to become a DVM so I can either work in the field of ethology, which is essentially the study of animal behaviour in their natural surroundings, or be a wildlife/conservation vet. I hope to work outdoors or be studying nature, as I hate sitting behind a desk for any length of time. I attribute part of this to planting, because out in the bush we are never still and I experienced how alive nature makes you feel. I was high on life. So vet school is still in the cards, but now a more environmental/conservation career is also a possibility. Nature only has us to protect it from human destruction. It bothers me when people refer to environmentalists as annoying, because really everyone should be an environmentalist to an extent; the environment is never just “someone else’s problem.” It is everyone’s concern because we are all affected by changes in nature. Planting reminded me that everyone needs to play an active role in protecting nature. I find I am less wasteful now and look for more natural products because in the bush you don’t waste and we tried to use biodegradable products. I am currently researching career options in similar fields of work to Dr. Logan because I would love to continue his kind of research. I think very soon the benefits of spending time in nature will have a substantial place in our routine healthcare.

Describe how you adapted back to city life after being in nature for two months.

I noticed many things upon returning to the city: the air felt thick, the water tasted gross, and there was just so much stimulation everywhere I turned it felt much harder to calm my mind. Even now, after almost a year, I still notice how different the water is compared to up North. Our water there comes from a lake or river and is filtered by UV light and reverse osmosis; it is the cleanest water we had ever drank. The water here now tastes like chemicals to me. I wonder if this also has an effect on our energy levels, with our bodies having to filter all those extra toxins. Another big thing that hit me hard was my back. About two days after I stopped planting I had major muscle soreness in my upper back, which is funny because I hardly had any pain while planting, but as soon as I sat still for a couple days and not using my muscles they got very sore. So now I’m just forced to stay more active so my muscles don’t hurt! I know for many people it’s the opposite; muscles hurt so they don’t exercise. Of course the first few weeks of planting were the most physically grueling time of my life, but once your body adapts you never want to sit down. And up North I learned that your body can adapt to pretty much anything (but unfortunately bug bites never get any less unpleasant).

Tree planting bags Photo courtesy Laura Miller

Tree planting bags
Photo courtesy Laura Miller

It was really an amazing transition to experience. I noticed how the buzz of city noise seemed to increase the static in my mind, instead of being attentive to every sound you hear up north. You become much less sensitized in the city because of noise, constant stimulation, and pollution, and in turn because of all this noise I think people become less sensitized towards themselves and what their bodies are telling them. I didn’t realize this until I spent two months in the woods, so it is hard for people who don’t get out into nature to realize that they may not be as healthy as they could be. Spending time away from the city in the woods helped me realize this. Since I returned I have a greater urge to escape to a forest or to a park with trees. Grass isn’t good enough, as Dr. Logan mentions in his book. It seems to me, just from my experiences with different nature settings, that a slightly dense forest is the perfect human habitat. Thousands of years ago this would have provided us with the perfect hunting environment: hiding places but also lookouts, shade, shelter from the elements, perhaps food, and the feel-good chemicals released from the bark of some trees. I don’t have any of my own scientific research to back up my theory, but I would love to study this connection more! Maybe if we discovered the perfect “human habitat” we could begin modeling our architecture and other everyday designs based on this, so more people could experience nature more often and benefit from the many health benefits now proven from spending time in nature.

Time in Nature is the real “Smart Drug” Children Need

Many children and their parents are looking for ways to increase academic performance to prepare for college admission and a future career. This pursuit often ends in seeking “smart drugs” such as Ritalin or Adderall to improve concentration. Even adults without symptoms of ADHD are now taking these drugs to work longer hours.

Olympic National Park, Washington (USA) Photo by Mark Ellison

The current trend is to medicate children, not considering that changing the environment where they spend their time could have more positive health consequences. Children are often in places full of artificial stimulants including video games, television, music, smart phones and other devices that grab attention. Replacing this with time in nature can have positive health outcomes.

The Natural Learning Initiative led by Dr. Robin Moore, a professor in the landscape architecture program at North Carolina State University, is helping to educate about the positive health benefits of children spending time in nature. The purpose of this initiative is to promote the importance of the natural environment in the daily experience of children, through environmental design, action research, education, and dissemination of information. One of the intriguing developments of this movement is the creation of natural play areas that encourage the use of creativity and imagination, as well as longer and richer play experiences in a natural setting. Reedy Creek Nature Preserve in Charlotte, NC recently added one of these play zones.

Research is now revealing that time in nature reduces symptoms of ADHD in children.  The Landscape and Human Health Laboratory (LHHL) at the University of Illinois is a multidisciplinary research laboratory dedicated to studying the connection between greenery and human health. Recent research at LHHL has found that nature has a calming and restorative effect on children and adolescents with ADHD, reducing symptoms and having a positive effect in cases where other treatments offer only limited help. The lab continues to research in this area and is currently examining the effects of schoolyard nature on children’s learning and academic achievement as reflected in standardized test scores.

Innovative programs are needed to get children and families in nature.  An example of this is the Kids in Parks Program developed by the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation, which is helping to get families out on nature trails. The mission of this program is to promote children’s health and the health of parks by engaging families in outdoor adventures that increase physical activity and foster a meaningful connection to the natural and cultural world.

Another program, sponsored by The Children and Nature Network, is the “Lets G.O.!” (Get outside) initiative in April 2013 designed to get people out into nature.

All of this aligns with The Child’s Right to Nature and a Healthy Environment Initiative which states that every child has a right to connect to nature in a meaningful way;  that every child has the right to be prepared and equipped to help address environmental challenges; and a right to a clean and healthy environment.

We have a responsibility to preserve natural areas so that the next generation can experience the beauty and health benefits that are associated with it. This is especially important for children who grow up in inner city environments, with no access to nature. How can you help to get children out in nature more?

The Physiological Effects of Shinrin-yoku

Park, B., Tsunetsuga, Y., Kasetani, T., Kagawa, T., & Miyazaki, Y. (2010). The physiological effects of Shinrin-yoku (taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing): evidence from field experiments in 24 forests across Japan. Environmental Health Preventive Medicine, 15(1), 18-26.

Abstract: The results of studies performed on the physiological effects of Shinrin-yoku show that forest environments could lower concentrations of cortisol, lower pulse rate, lower blood pressure, increase parasympathetic nerve activity, and lower sympathetic nerve activity compared with city settings. The results of the physiological measurements suggest that Shinrin-yoku can aid in effectively relaxing the human body, and the psychological effects of forest areas have been correlated with the various physical environmental factors of forest. The studies of Shinrin-yoku provide valuable insights into the relationship between forests and human health.

Access the entire manuscript at www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2793346/?tool=pubmed

Comments by Mark Ellison:

The health promoting and stress reducing benefits of Shinrin Yoku that have been found through scientific research in Japan offer many possibilities for improved public health  in other countries, including the United States. Research on this topic has been occurring for several years in Japan, but not as extensively elsewhere. More emphasis needs to be placed globally on research exploring how nature impacts physical and mental health, as well as on the development of programs that help people connect to nature.   This can have a tremendous impact on public health and have positive financial implications for individuals, governments and organizations as a result of having healthier, more effective employees, and lower healthcare costs.