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bird illustration By Tomacco; tree illustration by Desy Aghadhia; spoon by Sanit Fuangnakhon

Forest exposure makes us happier, healthier—even smarter and kinder

By Julie Marshall

Two centuries ago, Romantic-era poets like William Wordsworth were aesthetically aware of nature’s powerful effects on our emotions, our creativity and our overall well-being. “Come forth into the light of things/Let Nature be your teacher,” Wordsworth wrote in “The Tables Turned” in 1798.

Today, science empirically confirms what the poets knew so well, says Florence Williams in The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative (W.W. Norton & Co., 2017). Experiments over the last decade show that when we’re in nature, our blood pressure measurably drops. Our moods—even clinically depressive states—improve, our senses sharpen, and we become smarter and kinder human beings. Our species is wired to need nature experiences on a biological level as a pathway to health, experts attest. And that makes it problematic in that, according to statistics, today’s adolescents have never spent more time indoors attached to computer screens and detached from nature. It’s no coincidence that we are witnessing more depression, obesity and unhealthy behaviors on an unprecedented level.

The solution is simple, says Williams, a former High Country News reporter who recently spent five years living in Boulder. “Our kids need to get out into nature more,” she says. “We are at risk of losing our innate love of nature as a species, and that’s really scary.”

‘Nature-Deficit Disorder’

In 2005, Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder inspired a national movement to reconnect children to the benefits of nature, says naturalist Dave Sutherland, whose job with Boulder’s Open Space and Mountain Parks is to create ways for kids to access nature. “The research is really starting to pile up now,” he says.

In Japan and South Korea, spending time in cypress forests is culturally accepted as preventive medicine. Overworked city dwellers and schoolchildren make time to inhale the trees’ phytoncides, which can reduce stress hormone levels by 53 percent, activate naturally occurring cancer-killing cells in the body, and lower blood pressure 5 to 7 percent. (photo by Early Spring)

Williams’s book continues the movement with cutting-edge research on the physiological changes humans experience in nature. In Japan and South Korea, she observed a pervasive cultural acceptance of forests as preventive medicine, with “forest healing instructors” on official “forest therapy trails” abundant with Hinoki cypress trees. There, overworked city dwellers and schoolchildren make time to inhale the trees’ phytoncides, which can reduce stress hormone levels by 53 percent, activate naturally occurring cancer-killing cells in the body, and lower blood pressure 5 to 7 percent.

All our senses congregate to create pathways in the brain to health, she explains. For instance, something visually pleasing in nature, such as an awe-inspiring sunset, triggers a mechanism in our brain to let “the happy molecules flow.” The sweet chirps, trills and tweets of songbirds comfort the neurons in our primitive emotional brain or basal ganglia; and the forest floor is filled with strains of bacteria that, once inhaled, can trigger the release of serotonin designed to lift your mood.

“This book has changed the way I spend time in nature,” Williams says on the phone from her home in Washington, D.C. “I crumble leaves in my hands when I walk, and make sure to smell the pine needles. I can imagine all of this boosting my health and lightening my mood. I feel like I’ve discovered a superpower.”

Prescription: Time in Nature

Sutherland likes to imagine that physicians will soon be scribbling “Time in nature” on prescription pads, and Williams says there’s an actual number they can prescribe. Research shows that a dosage of 5 hours a month spent outside the city (or a couple of times a week for 30 minutes) can indeed elevate mood and stave off depression.

photo by Gallinago_media

The city of Lafayette’s naturalist, Martin Ogle, sees some irony in jotting down concrete numbers on one’s calendar. “I wholeheartedly agree we need to connect to nature,” Ogle says, “but we also need to make mindful choices about our unhealthy pace of life at home, school, work and play, and rethink an overly structured use of time even outdoors, especially for our kids. If we simply add in a formulaic number, we might miss one of the fundamental lessons that nature offers us—that of enjoying life at its own pace without rush or purpose.”

Delaney Ruston, M.D., directed the documentary film Screenagers: Growing Up in the Digital Age, and the topic of time outdooors is dear to her heart as a mother and family physician. The average child spends six-and-a-half hours a day in front of a screen not counting school, she says, which is a recipe for decreased attention spans, poor social skills and “real clinical addiction.”

“For me, the big issue is our kids’ use of downtime. We would hope they would go outdoors to play, but really we are seeing more screen time,” she says from her office in Stony Brook, N.Y. One solution, she says, is to craft an agreement, with your child’s input, on limiting hours of screen time.

One dangerous risk of too many hours spent alone indoors and in front of a screen appears to be lack of empathy, Ruston says. Research over the last few years shows a significant decreased ability in college students to perceive alternative perspectives of people unlike themselves.

But reconnecting to nature can promote empathy and compassion, Williams says. “Being in nature does slow down your sense of time. You feel more patient, and all is right with the world.” Researchers have been able to document and measure decreased aggression and increased generosity in those who find the time to walk in the woods.

“My hope is that people will start to pay attention to how they feel differently in nature, and the elements they respond to. Maybe it feels best to walk alongside the creek, or under the mountains. … It’s important to find that space for relaxation, and to cultivate a sense of awe in nature,” she says, “because this is not a luxury; it’s what keeps us going. It’s critical use of time that is essential to who we are, and who we want to be as individuals and as a civilization.”


Recommended Forest Hikes

Research shows that for our health, we need to spend at least 5 hours each month in nature. Even a short walk in the foothills can produce lasting physiological changes. Here are a few ideas for Boulder forest hikes to engage all our senses, courtesy of local naturalist Dave Sutherland.

Shanahan Road Trail Loop
Access: Lehigh Street and Lafayette Drive
Health Benefit: A “forest bathing” experience in a ponderosa pine forest without the stressful parking experience of Chautauqua. Put your nose to a tree, take a whiff of the bark and enjoy the scent of vanilla. Some tree barks smell like chocolate or butterscotch.

Homestead Trail
Access: South Mesa Trailhead, 1.7 miles west of Highway 93 on Eldorado Springs Drive
Health Benefit: Ponderosa pines, spectacular views and colorful wildflowers. Turn off your phone and pay attention to the sound of the wind. Nature is always singing a song to us, but we don’t always listen.

Flagstaff Mountain
Access: 3.4 miles up Flagstaff Road at the junction with Flagstaff Summit Road. Hint: Ute and Range View trails make a nice loop with views of Indian Peaks.
Health Benefit: A really great place to walk in the forest and smell the wildflowers, take a close look at the exquisite wing patterns of forest butterflies, and hear migratory songbirds and woodpeckers. Keep a lookout for mule deer in the meadow and raptors nearby.

Dakota Ridge and Hogback Ridge Trail
Access: North Foothills Trailhead and Fourmile Creek Trailhead on Lee Hill Road
Health Benefit: There’s no shortage of awe-inspiring views here, and you don’t have to worry about crowds of people. A 700-foot climb to a rocky ridge offers a spectacular panoramic view of the Great Plains. Ideally, take a night hike on a full moon to appreciate the sea of darkness that is protected open space buffered by islands of city lights.

South Boulder, Bear and Green Mountain Peaks
Access: South Mesa Trailhead, National Center for Atmospheric Research Trailhead, and Flagstaff Mountain
Health Benefits: These are all nice forested areas to explore. South Boulder and Bear Peak are rebounding from the 2012 Flagstaff Fire. It’s a great way to witness the exuberance of life in the aftermath of fire and appreciate the circle of life.

Chautauqua Park
Access: Grant Place and Baseline Road
Health Benefits: If you’re willing to fight crowds and parking, Chautauqua is an obvious gem for forested walks and fantastic views. The Ranger Cottage offers free nature-discovery activity packs for children that include a pair of binoculars, a magnifying glass, crayons and Bingo sheets. Here’s information: www.bouldercolorado.gov/osmp/naturepack.

More ideas from Open Space and Mountain Parks, www.osmp.org
The Connect Kids to Nature page offers information for parents to help engage kids on nature walks. www.bouldercolorado.gov/osmp/connect-to-nature
Trailheads and maps: www.bouldercolorado.gov/osmp/trails-and-maps
Updated list of free nature hikes by Open Space and Mountain Parks: www.naturehikes.org
Self-guided hikes on geology and history—a great way to learn more on your own: www.bouldercolorado.gov/osmp/elearning 


photo by Sue Barr

Writing The Nature Fix “has changed the way I spend time in nature,” says author and former Boulderite Florence Williams. “I crumble leaves in my hands when I walk, and make sure to smell the pine needles. I imagine it boosting my health and lightening my mood. I feel like I’ve discovered a superpower.”