It will come as no surprise to readers of this column that we believe in Nature, in all its glories, as a never ending source of inspiration, intellectual exploration and deep spiritual satisfaction. We worry about urban sprawl and the degradation of our public parks. We value co-existence with wildlife, it’s natural habitat and try to tread softly, in our habits and behavior so as to protect and preserve the natural environment.
Now comes some justification and confirmation of what some of us have known all along: Exposure to Nature, on a regular basis, enhances both physical and mental well-being.
Emery University’s Rollins School of Public Health scientist Howard Frumkin, M.D., presents the results of his study in the April issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
He points to a mass of evidence that shows spending time in a natural environment may have positive health effects and can help prevent and treat illnesses.
“Our standard clinical paradigm involves medications more than non-medical approaches, treatment more than prevention,” he says. “ But many people are intuitively drawn to this idea [of spending time in nature] “ Dr. Frumkin explains. “They feel restored and healthier in a beautiful landscape.”
“And on the other side,” Frumkin says, “ many environmentalists work to preserve nature for a range of very good scientific reasons, but forget that one of the major benefits may be human health.”
So, don’t be surprised when some day soon, your doctor, psychotherapist or clergyperson suggests a hike, a picnic in the park, or a walk on the beach.
Dr. Frumkin’s work on public health aspects of natural environments is admittedly influenced by the work of renowned Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Harvard scientist E.O. Wilson, whose “biophilia” hypothesis claims that humans are innately attracted to other living organisms and that this contact with the natural world is both a primal instinct and benefits human health.
Frumkin’s research points to evidence of health benefits from four distinct interactions with the natural environment: contact with animals, contact with plants, viewing landscapes and contact with wilderness. Frumkin further asserts that evolution may have hard-wired humans with a longing and preference for specific natural settings
“Early humans found that places with open views offered better opportunities to find food and avoid predators,” Dr. Frumkin writes, “but they needed water to survive and attack prey, and groups of trees for protection. Modern research has shown that people today, given the choice, prefer landscapes that look like this scenario.”
One wonders then, within the context of the contentious public debate over urban sprawl, just who “owns” a landscape? What long-term effect on the well-being of a community may happen by cutting down trees and leveling the landscape to make way for another strip mall?
Clearly psychologists, social workers and health care practitioners have suspected for years that there is a strong link between human health and exposure to the natural world. A century ago, ocean cruises and summers in the mountains were prescriptions for vague ailments only the rich could afford.
In modern times, pet therapy, horticultural therapy, healing gardens, and New Age practices like aromatherapy, stress reduction audio tapes of ocean waves other sounds of nature are just a few example of attempts to reconnect with our natural instincts. It’s no surprise that gardening is both the most popular and fastest growing leisure activity in the U.S.
So, plant a garden, walk the dog, stroll the nature trail. It does a body good.
(Originally published in Messenger-Post newspapers, April 1001)