When the first wave of the pandemic hit, everyone was faced with quick-decision making based on little knowledge. I respect that little was known at the time and possibly the best decisions were made based on the information available. One of those decisions being the closure of many public spaces, including parks, trails and green spaces.
Now that time has passed, many places have opened up and people everywhere are grateful for the opportunity to get out in a safe manner and enjoy nature. This time is our chance to review the initial decision and reflect on what can be done if we are faced with a similar challenge again.
I bring this up because I have been in park management for over two decades. Uniquely, I also did a Masters degree studying the natural health benefits of spending time in nature. And as a side interest, I became a certified trainer and did all my coaching in parks and natural areas. Most of my life has been about making parks safe for people and people seeing the wellness benefits of being in parks.
I don't think it takes a degree to know that we feel better in nature. Instinctively, I believe many of us know this. That was evident right after the parks were closed and people flocked to hidden trails and country roads to walk anywhere and anyway they could as long as they could be outside. So I thought maybe a more comprehensive look at the value might allow a different perspective to be considered if the situation arises again.
There are hundreds and hundreds of studies that suggest that time spent in green spaces is good for physical, mental and social well-being. It is one of the easiest ways we can bring some wellness into our lives, and some of the data from these studies suggest that many of the repercussions of isolation can be mitigated to some level with time spend in nature.
STRESS MANAGEMENT: An interesting study on happiness and well-being of students showed that these positive feeling were more directly correlated with exposure to natural environments than to the level of hardships being experienced in their lives. In other words, many tended to manage stress and challenges better when consistently exposed to natural environments.
Another study published in Frontiers of Psychology, revealed that stress biomarkers decreased after exposure to nature. In this same study the following conclusion was made: "The results provide a validated starting point for healthcare practitioners prescribing a nature pill to those in their care."
A very encouraging finding was in the study that determined after a ninety minute walk in nature participants experienced a significant decreases in obsessive and negative thoughts and experienced a reduction in neural activity in an area of the brain linked to mental illness.
A further study determined that all of these stress reducing benefits were noted when participants were exposed to forest environments: lower concentrations of cortisol, lower pulse rate, lower blood pressure, greater parasympathetic nerve activity, and lower sympathetic nerve activity.
WELL-BEING: Many people report simply feeling better and more energetic when outside. I saw this in every program I led. Although exercise tends to make people feel good after, doing so in nature had an ability to re-energize while providing a great sense of calm that is not achieved many other ways. It is the ideal energy for our bodies. There are just so many reasons why nature gives an overall sense of well-being but basically it stimulated our whole neuroendocrine system, which influences most everything in our bodies such as: regulation, balance, metabolism, energy utilization and the list goes on.
Participants in my programs reported improvements with many challenges such as anxiety, seasonal affective disorder, energy, sleep and depression. Most participants exercised regularly, so it seems that the combination of the two together made a greater impact and saw the greatest benefit. The following study suggests something similar and the value of help with pandemic related emotions, showing that nature exposure reduced a feeling of isolation and induces a sense of calm and improved mood.
MENTAL CLARITY : A 20% increase was recognized in mental clarity and cognitive testing after a short break walking in nature. The same improvements did not happen when the same break happened while walking down a busy street. Numerous studies show a decrease in ADHD symptoms and advance cognitive development when playing in nature. Further benefits include an increase in confidence, self-esteem and independence.
One study also showed that nature immersion improved creative reasoning and that creative reasoning not only helps us with creative and artistic endeavours but it also helps us problem solve, work through fears and reason through facts and challenges.
As stated in an article in The Atlantic, How Nature Resets our Minds and Bodies, "Nature restores mental functioning in the same way that food and water restore bodies."
RESPIRATION: Breathing outdoors lets in more concentrated oxygen to your muscles and brain helping us to function better. We know that one of the most effective ways to decrease stress is to breath more effectively allowing high concentrations of oxygen into our cells, telling our body all is safe.
The benefits of breathing in fresh air goes well beyond oxygen. The air is also rich in phytonidices (chemicals released by plants) that have antibacterial and anti fungal properties to aid in fighting infection. It also help you detoxify all organs in your body. Another chemical terpenes is also released by plants and has a anti-inflammatory, anti-tumorigenic, and neuroprotective activities.
We know that recycled indoor air runs the risk of recycling pollutants and that risk is reduced in natural areas. Studies have demonstrated how as air pollution is reduced and children have improved lung function and fewer hospitalizations for respiratory issues and asthma.
IMMUNITY BOOST : There are numerous reasons for improved immunity due to exposure to trees, forests, parks and natural environments, such as the many different beneficial bacteria that aid your immune system processes.
The mircobiata found in natural environments are more beneficial for human health than those found in built environments. It has even been shown to reduce anxiety and depression in some studies. These bacteria are crucial to boosting immunity, which aids in reducing inflammation, sensitivities and resilience later in life.
Free electrons transferred from the ground into our bodies without hindrance is a powerful antioxidant. Anioxidants are not only supportive of ridding our body of harmful toxins, they also play a role in boosting our immunity, improve adrenal support, sleep quality, decrease hormonal symptoms and can help protect you from harmful EMF's.
SOCIAL BENEFITS: Every anecdotal stories I am told of social experiments in nature, show a benefit to all who participate. One psychology lab is finding undoubtedly the more connected people feel to nature, the happier they are.
I think it evident that the belief is the virus risk is less in the outdoors compared to indoors. This is evident by comments from many health officials and especially by the protocols that are being put in place i.e. numbers are less restrictive outdoors than indoors. Now more than ever, these natural green spaces are our safest zone for any level of social interactions. It's important for us to provide not only the best but safest opportunity for everyone to experience that.
VITAMIN D: We are always finding out more and more about the importance of vitamin D. We do know it helps with general health i.e. fighting illnesses such as heart disease, cancer and osteoporosis as well as obesity, inflammation and immunity. Since sunlight is a natural source of vitamin D, it is only logical that spending time outdoors responsibly would increase your vitamin D in take.
One of the key reasons it may be believed that the risk of contraction is less is in the outdoors could be due to the fact that Vitamin D is also a natural antiseptic; killing molds, bacteria and even viruses.
Although controversial some recent studies have shown huge benefit from Vitamin D to fight virus' including COVID-19. A significant crude relationship between average vitamin D levels and the number COVID-19 cases, and particularly COVID-19 mortality rates were found in one study. Regardless of the where you sit on the discussion it may be considered that vitamin D sensibly sourced in nature could be one of the most basic, easiest and least expensive strategy you can use to ward off the virus.
The following conclusion was made in the same study, "Much more attention should be paid to the importance of vitamin D status for the development and course of the [COVID-19] disease. Particularly, in the methods used to control the pandemic (lockdown), the skin's natural vitamin D synthesis is reduced when people have few opportunities to be exposed to the sun."
Recovery from any illness is proving to benefit from exposure to nature, for example, stroke survivors in the greater Boston area had a 20% reduction in risk if they lived near a high concentration of green space. This is easy to believe because even exposure to natural light and natural views has proven to improve healing time from different illnesses. Helen Stokes-Lampard from the Royal College of GPs advises that getting outside can have a “really positive impact” on health.
OUR CHILDREN: It has been proven that when outside children play longer and move their body more than they would when inside. These activities are the basic behaviours required to avoid health issues such as high cholesterol, obesity, blood pressure as well as many others.
A very recent study provides evidence of immediate collateral consequences of the COVID-19 outbreak, demonstrating an adverse impact on the movement and play behaviours of Canadian children and youth. These findings can guide efforts to preserve and promote child health during the COVID-19 outbreak and crisis recovery period, and to inform strategies to mitigate potential harm during future pandemics.
Tim Gill, a consultant on the matter states that "regular contact with nature is part of a balanced diet of childhood experiences. If children do not have those experiences then they are not going to thrive as if they did."
At the World Health Organization International Healthy Cities Conference, which included national health services and public health organization a consensus was made that "Government should recognize our green space as key to the delivery of a wise range of sustainable public health."
The basic point is that public green spaces are crucial to health of mind, body and soul. With so much uncertainty, the one thing we can be certain of is that the majority of us find comfort, well-being and peace in nature and the outdoors. So, my plea to all levels of Government, Public Health and all Park Managers is, can we try our best to make these outdoor spaces the one safe refuge we have during trying times?
I am not suggesting every single park has to be open, but I also don't think every single park has to be closed. An operational and management analysis will show opportunity for certain parks, portions of parks or policies that could be implemented to make certain areas available within the guidelines of health and safety related to this virus or any challenge. The nice thing about natural areas is each one provides a different management opportunity, allowing for unique protocols and the ability to enhance existing resources so everyone can enjoy them and be safe.
At the end of the day, the simple fact is we are nature. It is the place we belong the most. We have a better chance of being in balance, finding peace and resilience there. Nature is a simple blessing that can be awarded to everyone during the planets most challenging times. Let's do what we can, get these policies in place and provide the most basic resource we have for the population's well-being so these valuable resources are not lost or unavailable during their most valuable time.