From Forest Bathing to Park Prescriptions: Celebrating the Healing Benefits of Nature on Earth Day
I never considered myself much of a nature lover until only recently. It wasn’t until I got into hiking about ten years ago that I began to truly appreciate the beauty of the natural world. But thinking back to my childhood, I actually did appreciate nature; I just didn’t put a label on it. In fact, I had designated two particular areas that I considered sacred as a kid, both places I would turn to when I needed some alone time. One was the big pine tree in my front yard. I would crawl underneath it and talk to all the little ants that colonized below its branches. And when I felt really emboldened, I would run away, down the two blocks it took to get to our neighborhood’s bird sanctuary, which offered a few short trails. There was one in particular that lead to a secluded field. I could sit there for hours in solitude without ever being detected. Inevitably after either a stint under the pine or in the woods, I would return home feeling rejuvenated and ready to take on the world again …. of Barbies and Legos.
I didn’t realize then what I realize now, which is the profound effect that nature has on our well-being. After reading numerous articles on the subject and being more aware of its effects first-hand, I am convinced that nature is a powerful healer. I’m clearly not the only one. A number of states now offer park prescriptions, in which doctors can prescribe time in nature as a means to prevent chronic health issues.
Curious to learn more about the science behind nature’s effect on our health, I sought out Ben Page, a Forest Therapy Guide and author of the soon to be released Healing Trees: A Pocket Guide to Forest Bathing. Since his practice began, Ben has been featured in such publications as Women’s Health, USA TODAY, Good Morning America, The Washington Post, and WebMD.
Ben explained that “in forest bathing, very little distance is covered. It’s not about getting somewhere, but about focusing our attention on ‘being here.’ It is meant to be relaxing and easeful. The slow and gentle pace of forest bathing allows participants to experience nature in a completely different way than hiking, because the sensory details of the environment become incredibly vivid. When we slow down, it’s as if our senses get much stronger, so that we can sense details in the world that we would otherwise rush by.”
When I asked Ben about what makes an environment ideal for forest bathing from a science perspective, he noted that “there are phenomena that have been shown to have a relaxing effect on the human nervous system. These include the color green, the sound of running water and birds, and the smell of earth.”
Ben also referenced the work of Dr. Margaret Hansen from the University of San Francisco, whose study reports on the positive effects of forest bathing in terms of immune, cardiovascular, respiratory and mental health. While it may be intuitive that nature provides healing qualities, I appreciate understanding the science behind it all.
Back to the park prescription programs, Ben is a fan, but he “hopes that people become more aware on their own, so that they won’t necessarily need a prescription in order to be motivated to spend time in nature.”
I couldn’t agree more. I happened to return to my hometown recently and thought I would check out the bird sanctuary. Unfortunately, some of it has been taken over with new development, but some of it remained intact. I decided to go after a run, so that I could fully enjoy it, without feeling the need to multi-task with my workout. Being there in that calm state allowed me to take it in fully and even to stumble upon a beautiful early-spring budding flower, that I would have otherwise overlooked. I felt a sense of awe and even a mischievous energy discovering such a natural gem.
I now realize that I am most certainly a nature lover, and I feel even more confident proclaiming that, as we make environmental protection such a priority at Fat Leaf Water. One way that we enact this value is by contributing a percent of our profits to The Nature Conservancy, whose mission is to “conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends”. On this Earth Day posting, I find it all the more relevant to remind ourselves that for all that our environment provides us, we have a responsibility to return this gift to mother nature.
Elyse Sara is the Founder of Fat Leaf Water, a cactus-water based sports hydration beverage. She is based in Long Beach, CA and is about to embark on her first long distance hike.