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Get Out: Nature Is the Fix for COVID-19 Stress

guy in woods

Dec. 31, 2020 -- Lockdowns and stay-at-home orders during the pandemic are difficult for everyone, but Jeff Stafford of Danville, IN., has some extra issues. He was laid off from his job as a car salesman in the spring, as COVID cases climbed. His bookings as a singer, which he did after-hours, weren't possible, either, as live performances were banned

"I couldn't sing, I couldn't sell cars," he says. "The whole world was going crazy. I got tired of sitting here."

That was when he heard the great outdoors calling. At the end of May, he loaded up his Jeep Wrangler and headed to the Pacific Northwest with his son, Caleb, now 15, to visit another son and his new grandchild. They took their time, spending 2 months on the road, staying in hotels and camping when they found open campgrounds.

They spent as much time as possible outdoors, drinking in the beauty of the southern rim of the Grand Canyon, Olympic National Park, and the redwoods, among other sites. "It was the trip of a lifetime," he says.

Stafford is home now. Did the outdoors relieve his stress? "If I had stayed locked up in my house," he says, "I would have gone crazy." And the outdoors remains his go-to pandemic stress reliever. "We went camping last week out in the woods," he says. For Stafford, who grew up in a farming community and spent time outdoors, the reconnection with nature is a welcome respite.

Like Stafford, millions of other Americans trying to cope with the pandemic and its restrictions have discovered -- or rediscovered -- the power of the outdoors and nature to ease stress.

Among the indications of that trend:

  • Sales of outdoor gear and sports equipment are up. Visits to many national parks are breaking records. Yellowstone had the busiest October on record, with visits up 110% over last October, according to park statistics. (As of mid-November, overall visits are down 6% from the same period last year, but the park had to close due to COVID-19 in March, not reopening until June.)
  • Bookings for the nature experience known as forest bathing or forest therapy, which means ''taking in the forest," were already popular but are on the rise.
  • Doctors who launched walking groups, such as Walk with a Doc, have tweaked the sessions so they can continue virtually if necessary.

Americans are Flocking to the Outdoors

The pandemic has nudged people to adopt healthier habits, says Matt Powell, an adviser for the NPD Group. It tracks point-of-sale data from more than 600,000 retail locations plus e-commerce and mobile platforms.

When its analysts compared this June (a critical month for outdoor sales) to June 2019, it found a 63% increase in bicycling sales; a 56% rise for products for paddle sports, such as kayaking; and increases of 51% in golf, 31% in camping, and 22% in bird-watching and nature sightings.

One advantage outdoor activities have: They allow social distancing, which will remain necessary for at least most of 2021.

Taking in the Forest

Forest bathing was already popular when the pandemic hit. The practice, which some call forest therapy, does not involve bathing. And isn’t led by a therapist, but a trained, certified guide or guides. In Japan, the practice is well-established and known as “shinrin yoku,” literally "taking in the forest."

Participants get a series of ''invitations" to commune with nature during the session, and then to share insights, if they wish, with other participants.

Ben Page is a certified guide, trained by the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy, which has trained guides worldwide. Page, also the founder of Integral Forest Bathing in Los Angeles, leads sessions at the Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden, among other locales. As COVID cases climbed and restrictions came, with some businesses closing, the sessions began to sell out, he says. (The current COVID situation in the county has forced the forest bathing sessions to cease temporarily.)

But for months, the classes were selling out, says Denise Lu, the arboretum's education coordinator.

"I think some people are just craving being around other people," Page says. Some of his participants would joke that it was the only thing going on, but he says the safety of the activity is probably also a draw. Social distancing is possible, and it's completely outdoors, says Page, the author of the forthcoming Healing Trees: A Pocket Guide to Forest Bathing.

"I have had lots of people saying they really need this, an experience when they can forget about the pandemic," Lu says.

Since the pandemic, Page and other guides also have begun to lead virtual forest therapy walks. Participants can take their laptop outside and adjust to a new understanding of nature, Page says.

"You have to start looking at your backyard and say, 'This is nature, too.'”

He encourages people to think about how they can appreciate nature in these more ordinary settings.

Offering forest bathing remotely ''is a way to make it more accessible," says Manuela Siegfried, a forest therapy guide in Costa Rica who also leads virtual sessions.

Walking off the Stress

Cardiologist David Sabgir, MD, who practices in Columbus, OH, founded Walk with a Doc in 2005, when he became frustrated with not being able to convince patients to exercise. It now has 530 chapters worldwide, with the doctor leading the walk first giving a brief talk on a health topic.

The pandemic has changed things, with many of the walking events being rescheduled for later and others made virtual, with participants walking in their own neighborhoods.

Sometimes, his patients confess they're depressed and have given up exercise, Sabgir says. He gives those a pep talk: "It's safe, I'm doing it every day. And it will put you in a better position to deal with the pandemic."

The virtual walks are continuing to draw participants. Their recent challenge to move virtually along the 44.2-mile route of Mount Kilimanjaro drew about 500 people, Sabgir says.

What the Research Shows About Nature's Power

Research backing up the benefits of connecting with nature just keeps accumulating. "We call it ‘vitamin N,’" says John Norcross, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania and author of Leaving It at the Office, a book on self-care for psychologists in its second edition. For increasing well-being, he says, ''we tell people that vitamin N is [spending] 30 minutes in nature." While many equate nature with forests or something else green, Norcross says some research also suggests that aquatic environments provide the same benefits.

Among recent studies finding healthful effects of nature:

Two hours a week boosts health: Researchers from the University of Exeter in the U.K. conclude that spending at least 120 minutes weekly in nature is linked with good health and well-being. They evaluated the patterns of nearly 20,000 people responding to a survey who reported their well-being, health, and contact with nature.

They found that 120 minutes was the sweet spot, with positive associations peaking between 200 and 300 minutes a week, with no further gain in health or well-being after that.

Short walk, better mood: When 60 adults walked for 15 minutes in a bamboo forest, their mood improved more than when they walked 15 minutes in a city environment.

Stress dissolver: Forest bathing lowers levels of cortisol, a marker of stress, according to a review of 30 published studies.

"Blue space" may work, too: While people tend to think of nature as only green space, researchers say aquatic environments, or ''blue space,'' appears to be good for mental health and well-being, too.

Marine biologist Wallace J. Nichols, PhD, in his 2014 bestselling book, Blue Mind, lays out how ''being near, in, on or under water" can improve health and happiness, among other benefits.

Nature Power: Two Testimonials

Lu spends her work breaks walking around the lush 127-acre grounds of the arboretum. As the pandemic has dragged on, she says she's feeling lucky to work this close to nature. "Anytime, I can walk outside."

When she started there 4 years ago, she was a self-described couch potato. "I would watch videos of people exercising, but I wouldn't do it," she says. Fast-forward to 2020. "Yesterday, I walked up to look at the ginkgoes," she says. "The ginkgoes are looking fabulous. I have this extreme, special appreciation for this place."

J.J. Clause, a retired school music teacher in South Lake Tahoe, CA, has always loved the outdoors. But the pandemic inspired her to really reconnect with nature. She went on a 2-month road trip with her golden retriever, Tenaya, in the travel trailer she's enjoyed for years.

A couple joined her, but stayed in their own trailer. Not having to worry about the virus made the outdoors even more special. "It was so nice to not have to worry about being around anybody. I was able to maintain my love of the outdoors and sanity by being outdoors almost all the time."

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Sources

Yellowstone National Park: "Yellowstone visitation statistics for October 2020."

Environmental Research: "Blue space, health and well-being: A narrative overview and synthesis of potential benefits."

Scientific Reports: "Spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature is associated with good health and wellbeing."

Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine: "Effects of Walking in Bamboo Forest and City Environments on Brainwave Activity in Young Adults."

NPD Group: "America Outdoors: Consumers Are Flocking to These 5 Activities."

J.J. Clause, retired school music teacher, South Lake Tahoe, CA.

Jeff Stafford, Danville, IN.

John Norcross, PhD, professor of psychology, University of Scranton, Scranton, PA.

Matt Powell, adviser, NPD Group, Port Washington, NY.

Ben Page, forest therapy guide, founder of Integral Forest Bathing, Los Angeles.

Denise Lu, education coordinator, Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden, Arcadia, CA.

David Sabgir, MD, cardiologist, Columbus, OH.

Manuela Siegfried, forest therapy guide, Santa Ana, Costa Rica.

Philadelphia Inquirer: “Anthony Fauci talks with Jefferson doctors about coronavirus vaccines, herd immunity, and how long we’ll need masks”

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