Nature and parks are critical for our well-being, especially during a crisis
by Samantha Haas
on Wednesday, April 22nd, 2020 at 8:02pm.
At the time of writing this article, the sun is peeking through rain clouds on April 22, the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. It’s been about a month since Gov. Tony Evers issued a Safer at Home order amid the COVID-19 pandemic, so celebrating this conservation milestone without a public gathering feels strange yet necessary given the circumstances.
However, we can still connect with nature on our own or with those who live in our homes while following the latest social distancing guidelines.
Announce "passing on left" and slow down while biking on trails;
Pack out all trash;
Assume all surfaces have been exposed to coronavirus and come prepared with gloves, hand sanitizer, or other items you may need;
Keep dogs on a 6-foot leash at all times unless at an off-leash dog park;
Not arrange to meet up with non-household members;
And keep in mind that all restroom facilities are temporarily closed.
Getting outside is highly encouraged because of the innumerable health benefits associated with spending time outdoors. And it seems that many people are catching on. We’re seeing this perhaps now more than ever, as our neighborhood sidewalks and trails are being frequently used by joggers, bicyclists, and dog walkers.
Although sports courts and park playgrounds are off-limits and some Wisconsin State Parks have been closed due to overcrowding and littering, several other local natural resources remain open. We are fortunate to have dozens of expansive Dane County Parks -- from prairies to forests -- to explore and enjoy.
“Our community is reaping the benefits of years of public and private support of our county, city, and local park systems,” Bill Lunney, Foundation for Dane County Parks President, wrote in a letter to the Wisconsin State Journal. Having spent more than 50 years of service in county government and 30 years as Parks Commission Chair, Bill’s leadership has helped grow the Dane County Parks from 3,500 acres to over 15,000 acres. He even gave a speech at the first Earth Day in 1970.
“Good health and access to nature and the outdoors is always manifest, but today it is critical for mental and physical health,” Bill added.
Prescribing nature as medicine has become more common among physicians in the last few years, and the free remedy is gaining traction during the stress-inducing coronavirus outbreak. Numerous studies show that spending time outside can alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression as well as improve self-esteem, cortisol levels, blood pressure, and heart rate.
This topic was discussed at length during a recent webinar, “Nature and the COVID-19 Pandemic,” sponsored in part by the National Park Service, with doctors who cited studies about the benefits of nature for our well-being. So stop and smell the flowers, because chemicals found in plants and trees (phytoncides) have been found to have antibacterial, antiviral, anti-inflammatory, and antifungal properties. Feel the dirt, because bacteria in the soil can also boost our immune system. Wear sunscreen but soak up the rays, because sunshine is a great source of vitamin D. And take in the soothing sights and sounds of the beauty all around us.
“There’s tremendous healing to be found in nature, both mental healing and physical healing,” said panelist Suzanne Bartlett Hackenmiller, MD, OB-Gyn and Integrative Medicine, Diest Medical Center/Mercy Des Moines; Medical Director, Association of Nature and Forest Therapy; Medical Advisor, AllTrails; and Board Member, SHIFT (Shaping How we Invest For Tomorrow).
As a forest therapy guide, Suzanne shared a few tips for how to find a “sit spot” or try “forest bathing” to help relax your body and mind during these uncertain times. “A sit spot is simply going somewhere outdoors (even your backyard) and sitting for 20 minutes with no agenda and just noticing what you notice. Journaling afterwards can be really effective and profound,” she said. “Forest bathing or forest therapy can be as simple as taking a walk on a trail, at a park, or down your city street, but as you do so, make particular effort to notice nature around you.”
Tune into nature with Suzanne’s suggested steps
Start by taking slow deep breaths outside
Take a head-to-toe inventory of your body and mind to notice where you might be holding tension
Notice the air you’re breathing in and out through your nose into your lungs
Notice the temperature, moisture content, and fragrances around you
Notice what you see around you: the colors, textures, signs of spring
Notice the sounds of your body and then your surroundings
Repeat as often as possible (consider adding it to your schedule)
Dane County offers several stunning places to try these techniques. For example, on a recent hike through McCarthy Youth and Conservation Park, I noticed the sound of the babbling creek and breeze rustling tree leaves in the woods; the sight of sandhill cranes and meadowlarks flying over the prairie; and the smell and feel of the soft soil beneath my feet. The experience provided me with mental clarity and was simultaneously relaxing and energizing -- plus a much-needed break from screens and the indoors. I’m already thinking about where I’m going to visit next.
“Spring is here. So if you are able, get outside, preferably to a park,” Bill said. “Honor social distancing and stay well.”