February 29, 2016 - Can nature enhance your health? There’s a strong case to be made that it can.
The idea that getting outdoors — on national wildlife refuges, for example — can improve your state of mind and, with it, your physical well-being isn’t exactly new. But there’s a large and growing body of research behind it.
Even small doses of nature can make a difference in the inner city.
In Baltimore, executive coach Mamie Parker, a former assistant director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service helps teens and their families discover a positive connection between health and nature, in the form of nearby parks. “I tell them, ‘If you’re frustrated, you’re angry, you’re tired, you’re bored, look to the outdoors as a way to substitute. It can help you feel better.”
Some students are coming to agree, including those she brings, with the help of the Service and its Urban Wildlife Conservation Program, to a reclaimed brownfield called Masonville Cove through a local partnership. “Because when they’re out in nature, no one’s telling them not to be loud, to use ‘inside’ voices,” says Parker. “They can run. They can be free.”
Around the country, national wildlife refuges are reminding visitors that nature experiences can enhance health.
The first Saturday of each month, Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge offers a scenic “nature walk for health.” Outdoor recreation planner Carmen Leong-Minch, regional representative to the Healthy Parks Healthy People Bay Area Collaborative, invites nature walk participants to “refresh your spirit with nature.” In spring and summer, she leads nature yoga sessions on the refuge.
With kids, Leong-Minch is wilier. “I'm not sure if being healthy is a motivator for kids, so I try to sneak it into programs.” The Amazing Refuge Race, which she created, is one. “I don't think they know it is about getting them to move outdoors — just that it’s a competition.”
At St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge on the Florida panhandle, environmental educator Lori Nicholson subtly steers the conversation to health when she talks with school kids on field trips. After some routine questions — “How many of you been here before? When you were here, what did you do?” — she slips in, “ ‘Do you ever just come to sit and enjoy the nature sounds around you? You should try that, see how it makes you feel.’”
Says Nicholson, “I have had lots of parents and students tell me they really enjoy the peace and quiet of the refuge, that it helps them to re-focus.”
St. Marks Refuge supervisory park ranger Robin Will represents the Service on a Florida coalition that, with a grant from health insurer Florida Blue, has trained more than 75 Leon County physicians to write “nature prescriptions” for their patients. “The refuge is a resource for physicians to give their patients to get outdoors,” says Will.
Will tells of a counselor at a Tallahassee mental health facility who sometimes brings her patients to the refuge to relax and de-stress. Says Will, “Hearing the splash of water and birds calling has a way of calming individuals and getting them to talk….Peace of mind is a huge part of what makes refuges so amazing.”
In Oregon, Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge is exploring partnerships in Portland to boost nature-and-health connections. The urban refuge already partners with Soul River, a nonprofit outdoor health venture founded by Navy veteran Chad Brown. Brown says fly-fishing helped him recover from PTSD; now, he and the refuge bring inner-city youth and veterans together on local rivers to heal and learn from one another.
First-timers sometimes express surprise at the calming effect of a refuge. “The city is too much chaos,” says Joshua Rodriguez, a young Californian who was filmed (https://vimeo.com/141553860) while visiting Tijuana Slough National Wildlife Refuge, just south of San Diego. “Here it’s just open wildlife, and you feel so immersive in a different world.”
Back in Baltimore, Parker can vouch for nature’s calming power: “I’ve gotten letters from kids saying, ‘This helped me deal with problems that I have.’…I’ve heard from parents that [their kids] seem more content. It inspires me to keep making the connection, that’s for sure.”