Good Health is a Walk in the Park

Sensitive Fern
Image by fred1st via Flickr

We hardly need more reasons–as children or adults–to put technology, crowds, and hurry behind us and go more often to the woods. We sense a stroll in the forest is somehow good for us, and more and more, we’re learning why that is so.

If we will submit to it, our rhythms change in a natural place free of man’s doing. Rarely is anything urgent in nature as a day or a season unfolds. We sense that. No committees or ordinances are required for decay and growth, sunlight and shade, riffle and boulder and oak tree and beetle to do what it is they do as part of an ancient and resilient corporation called an ecosystem. We’re off the clock and not in control. We need not be, and can simply be.

In the economy of nature, everything is connected to everything else, a calming integrity difficult to know in our hurried, overloaded and superficial culture.
After some while in the forest or meadow or mountaintop, our internal clocks recalibrate; our rhythms and pace change. We open up to the outer world of nature that “just is”–before, beyond, and around us since the beginning.  Our greatest thinkers have sought the solitude and re-creation of wilderness to find clarity and peace, and for some, to hear the voice of God.

In our suburbs and cities and shopping malls and private electronic experiences, we are aliens to nature’s healing solace and tranquility. Our children hear warnings of the dangers “out there”–lions and tigers and bears–oh MY! And poison ivy and snakes and ikky things. And yet…

The list of health benefits of being in natural areas includes positive changes for ADHD, asthma, depression, stress and improved immune function. The research support for this is broad and solid, and it is growing every year.

I recently learned that it might be more than just the sounds, smells and sensations of the woods that give us that sense of well-being we come home with. The Japanese are studying the effects of “forest bathing” (Shinrin-yoku) which is not what it sounds like. Forest immersion might be a better English translation. There is something in the air breathed out by the trees.

That something is a vapor of plant-produced airborne chemicals called phytoncides, a term which literally means “exterminated by the plant.” There are more than 5000 of these volatile chemicals wafting in the forest air. They emanate from pines and oaks, from garlic and tea tree and hundreds of other plants. Phytoncides prevent bacteria, fungi and insects from infecting or ingesting or rotting the plants.

In recent studies, these chemicals seem to have health benefits for humans as well, contributing to a decrease in blood glucose among diabetic patients while walking in the forest. Cortisol, an important stress hormone, declines, and mortality rates for cancer are lower in areas with heavier forest cover. Phytoncides may be part of the benefit of forest immersion.

We have breathed and “bathed” in these compounds for the vast majority of mankind’s history when we lived dependent on and immersed in the natural world. It’s only recently that we’ve come to realize the true costs of our retreat inside. (We usually carry at least a few plants indoors with us.)

Exercise and play are more beneficial in “green spaces.”  Pediatricians increasingly appreciate the role of play on childhood health. Play outdoors has a broader mental and physical health effect than play indoors, and play in “unimproved” outdoor places (fields and rolling lawns) is more beneficial than play on flat, paved or grass surfaces.

I can imagine a day when outdoor engagement (ecotherapy for kids and their parents) is a common prescription. Its label might read:

“Directions: Apply daily. Take with fresh air, sunshine and the smell of earth. May be used while walking, watching, listening in forest, meadow or mountain trail. Use alone or with friends and family. Unlimited refills, no expiration date.”

The World Health Organization predicts that by 2020, depression will be second only to heart disease as a global health problem. The causes of this alienation and dysfunction are many, but the path to recovery may lead to a walk in the woods.

As Joni Mitchell would tell us: we’re “caught in the devil’s bargain” and maybe “it’s time we got ourselves back to the garden.”

Author’s resources partial list:

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. One day, I’ll build a house on my property. In the meantime, I enjoy walking around it and getting to know it. I find my visits deeply calming and enjoyable – the idiots on the road here in Miami are the furthest thing from my mind while I’m there.

  2. Thanks for writing again about the phytoncides. It’s another way to persuade us all to get outdoors in as natural a place as possible. We all know it makes us feel better; now there is a partial explanation!