Paul Andersen: Fair Game
December 19, 2010
Some friends and I skinned up to the top of Burnt Mountain a few weeks ago for a pre-season run down Long Shot. After exulting over the mountain views, we made swooping telemark turns through a foot of soft, fluffy, virgin powder.
At about the midway point, deep in the forest, I stopped to catch my breath. At that moment, a wind came roaring through the trees, setting off snow cascades from every limb. The November sun was slanting low, and its rays illuminated these sparkling explosions of snow as they filtered down in sheens of silver glitter.
I felt like Alice falling down the rabbit hole and landing in a fantasy world. The air was charged with the ethereal light of glinting crystals, bathing the forest in an aura of incredible beauty. I was consumed by what I can only describe as spiritual uplift from the wonder of existence. This was not your average ski run.
If there is a way to bottle this experience, it could have immeasurable value to all branches of medicine. Such wonderment produces a healing power that energizes the body, stimulates the mind, and elevates the soul. That night, reading the Berkeley Wellness Letter, a periodical from the University of California at Berkeley, I found confirmation in the medical benefits of natural awe.
Dr. John Swartzberg described his nature experiences backpacking in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains: “I get a lot out of exercising regularly year-round, at the gym or running in my neighborhood,” he wrote, “but I get so much more out of this annual backpacking trek. It’s not just exercise, or a vacation, or quality time with a friend. What makes it especially restorative is being out in nature.”
Swartzberg said there is “real science” in the link between wellness and nature because of what happens to our brains and bodies when we’re in a forest, or in the mountains, or by the sea. “The Japanese,” he wrote, “have been studying what they call ‘forest bathing’ (Shinrin-yoku) – that is, spending time in nature for therapeutic effects.”
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Swartzberg said studies reveal that memory and attention are improved after being in nature, where there occurs an increase in vitality and a greater sense of well-being. “Other studies have found that patients in hospitals tend to recover more quickly when they can see trees from their windows.”
My own experience has shown that immersion in nature intensifies the sensory experience. As the senses become peaked, time slows down. Swartzberg writes, “Japanese researchers have found that walking through forests can help reduce stress, lower blood pressure and heart rate, and improve various aspects of immune function for anywhere from a few hours to a few days afterwards.”
In The New York Times, a similar finding came from columnist Jane Brody. She first warned that most Americans suffer from “outdoor deprivation disorder,” which is proven to degrade mental and physical health. Nature Deficit Disorder, according to scientist Richard Louv, is especially acute for children who are fed a steady diet of academics and electronic entertainment, but little or no unstructured time in nature.
The lack of physical activity and a growing disconnect with nature, cautioned Brody, have been linked to obesity and obesity-related diseases in children and adults, including Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, asthma and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, as well as vitamin D deficiency, osteoporosis, stress, depression, attention deficit disorder and myopia. One family physician calls these “diseases of indoor living.”
Evolutionary biologists emphasize that we humans originated from nature and that, despite technology, we remain inextricably linked to nature. Denying these, our deepest roots, can be disorienting. Therapeutic benefits are a good reason to get out into nature on whatever terms you choose – whether a walk in the park or making turns down a favorite ski run.
“In wildness is the preservation of the world,” said Thoreau. Medical science now reasons that preserving wildness might be a necessity for human health. Historian Rod Nash suggests that wilderness may be more therapeutic than a hundred beds in a mental hospital. Science, which has long served to separate us from nature, is finally extolling the virtues of reconnecting us with the true source of our being.
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