Take as prescribed: Nature in Winnebago County Parks

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It seems, there is an inordinate amount of controversy going on all over the world these days. Where can one go to escape the push and pull of opposing factions, the commotion of too busy schedules, the onslaught of violence in the news’ impact everyday life?

We may not have a cure for all society’s ills but there is a proven method that provides some relief. Since at least the 1970’s, studies have shown that interaction with nature has a multitude of mental, emotional and cognitive benefits, is accessible to most people, and doesn’t cost a thing. “There is mounting evidence that contact with nature has significant positive impacts on mental health,” said Mardie Townsend, PhD, an honorary professor at the School of Health and Social Development at Deakin University in Australia. . “It is associated with reduced levels of stress — which also has huge ramifications for physical health, reduced levels of depression and anxiety, increased resilience, increased engagement with learning for children and adolescents otherwise disengaged from the education system, improved self-esteem and increased capacity to engage socially,” she told Psychiatry Advisor.

The sounds of nature appear to have similar benefits, according to a 2013 study by Annerstedt, Jönsson, and Wallergård, called “Inducing physiological stress recovery with sounds of nature in a virtual reality forest–results from a pilot study” in Physiology & Behavior; 2013. As for time in the outdoors, researchers from Nippon Medical School in Japan compared the effects of walking through a forest versus walking through a city. Their results show that “forest bathing,” as they call it, not only led to decreased stress hormones, but actually increased the natural killer cells of the immune system and the expression of anti-cancer proteins as per an article by Bratman and Hamilton for, Daily GC called “The impacts of nature experience on human cognitive function and mental health” published in Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences; 2012 as noted by Tori Rodriguez, MA, LPC, a psychotherapist and freelance writer based in Atlanta.

Another term used to describe this phenomenon is Ecotherapy or Green Therapy, described by Lecia Bushak, a reporter covering mental health and international news, as “immersion in a natural setting which fights depression, improves mental health and the sense of well-being”. Bushak says, “being in nature has long been associated with being mindful and meditative, but only recently has the scientific community researched the mental health benefits of outdoor immersion”. And notes “a recent study conducted by researchers from the University of Essex and published by the mental health organization Mind found that taking a walk in nature reduced depression scores in 71 percent of participants.”

Other studies have shown that reconnecting with nature helps to lift depression, while boosting energy. American author Richard Louv says in his book The Nature Principle, people living in high-tech societies often suffer from what he calls “nature deficit disorder.”

Yikes! Something else to worry about? Never fear, another study published in 2010 in the Journal of Environmental Psychology showed that spending even just 20 minutes outside per day could boost energy levels. “Research has shown that people with a greater sense of vitality don’t just have more energy for things they want to do, they are also more resilient to physical illnesses,” Richard Ryan, professor of psychology at the University of Rochester and an author of the 2010 study, said.

So how does this ‘ecotherapy’ stuff work? Essentially the finding of all these studies is that Nature does some pretty miraculous things. For example Nature heals; being in nature reduces anger, fear, and stress while increasing pleasant feelings. Exposure to nature makes you feel better emotionally, and contributes to your physical wellbeing by reducing blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension, and the production of stress hormones. It may even reduce mortality, according to scientists such as public health researchers Stamatakis and Mitchell.

Nature soothes; by helping to cope with pain, since we are genetically programmed to find trees, plants, water, and other nature elements engrossing, we are absorbed by nature scenes and distracted from our pain and discomfort. All of this helps to prove that Green is good for you!

The Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment produced a study that, among other things, finds quantifiable evidence that walking in nature can lead to a lower risk of depression. This creates a whole new meaning to the retort “Take a hike”! Specifically, the study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, found that people who walked for 90 minutes in a natural area, as opposed to participants who walked in a high-traffic urban setting, showed decreased activity in a region of the brain associated with a key factor in depression.

So…. Whether you have just twenty minutes, ninety minutes or an entire afternoon, spending time in Nature is good for you. Therefore a prescription for better mental and physical health could read as follows:

To be taken as often as possible – time spent in Nature. Refills – unlimited. Active ingredients; Winnebago County Community Park, J.P. Coughlin Nature Area, Waukau Creek and Dam Nature Preserves, and the WIOUWASH and Mascoutin Recreational Trails. Where can important information pertaining to these ingredients be found? www.co.winnebago.wi.us/parks!

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Vicky Redlin

Winnebago County Parks & Sunnyview Expo Center Program Manager, Parks News editor, and frequent Facebook commentator.

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