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Nature is the prescription for good health and well-being

By Angela Belli, Director, Winnie Palmer Nature Reserve

Are you feeling anxious? Longing for the awakening of growth and green? Do you need some rejuvenation? Nature has just what everyone needs in these challenging times. With the rise in the overall use of technology, fears of COVID-19 transmission and tick-borne illnesses, and our love affair with all forms of social media, so many of us find ourselves trapped in a cycle that does not include a real and authentic daily dose of nature.

The importance of nature experiences for human health and emotional well-being has been proven by the educational and scientific communities. It has been shown that real time in nature reduces stress, anxiety, blood pressure and aggression. By “nature,” most generally mean an area containing elements of living systems that include plants and non-human animals across a range of scales and degrees of human management, from a backyard community city park to a forest, or even nature protected area. That definition, coupled with abiotic elements such as sunsets, warm breezes, or mountain views, illustrates a space ideal for the calming, healthy benefits that spending time outdoors provides. In a 2019 study of 20,000 people, Mathew White, of the European Centre for Environment & Human Health at the University of Exeter, found that people who spent two hours a week in green spaces—local parks or other natural environments, either all at once or spaced over several visits—were substantially more likely to report good health and psychological well-being than those who did not. The 2015 Green Spaces and Cognitive Development in Primary Schoolchildren study, published in the Proceedings of the Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, indicated that contact with nature plays a crucial and irreplaceable role in brain development. Natural green spaces provide children with unique opportunities for engagement, risk-taking, discovery, creativity, mastery and control. Children outside are better able to strengthen their sense of self, inspire basic emotional states, including a sense of wonder, and experience enhanced psychological restoration, which are all thought to positively influence different aspects of cognitive development. Emotional health seems to improve as one has contact with nature on a regular basis.

As an outdoor educator, I have no doubt that nature heals in many ways and provides everyone the much-needed break from the chaos of our day-to-day activities. Our brains are constantly over-stimulated by the hustle and bustle of background noise, lights and electronic screens of all kinds. Let us face it, Wi-Fi is everywhere—we cannot escape it. We can, however, recognize that there needs to be a balance in the lives of individuals from birth to grave when it comes to time behind a screen and time spent in an outdoor environment. Short-term and long-term health benefits, whether documented or not, have been seen in a variety of ways. First, sunshine: yes, plain and simple—our bodies need Vitamin D for our immune system and healthy sleep. Second, executive function: outdoor settings set all of our senses in motion and stimulate the neurons in our brain in a positive way. Third, for me as an educator and naturalist, the appreciation of the wonderfulness in nature positively influences my view of the world. There is nature everywhere, even if just a crack of the sidewalk or a small backyard space. If a person grows up never walking in the woods, digging in dirt, seeing animals in their habitat, climbing mountains, hillsides or trails, playing in streams or staring at the rolling waves in an ocean, they may never really understand what there is to be lost. We all need to appreciate this planet; the future of earth depends on our experiences with the natural world.

Now, with all this information, what is there left to do but get outside and get a big, fat, healthy dose of Nature RX—just what the doctor ordered. Whether ecopsychology, immersion in nature, forest bathing, or whatever you want to call the approach you take to getting outside, doing it is what matters. Each of us needs to spend at least 120 minutes each week in nature, only 17 minutes a day, as science has associated this amount with good health and well-being. Winnie Palmer Nature Reserve is right in your neighborhood, Bearcats. It’s a conservation space filled with nature’s wonder and discovery. Take a gentle lunch break and walk along our two-mile trail system, sit quietly at the Palmer Pond and take in the sound of trickling water, bring a blanket and study around any of the garden spaces, observe birds on the barn back patio or take a meditative stroll on the Labyrinth. In whatever way you choose to immerse yourself in a little nature, strive to get outside daily. I assure you that nature will not disappoint.

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