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  • Putting our senses in order

    Time spent in nature is time well spent.


    ON A RECENT MORNING I ambled past a property where a huge Douglas fir had just been taken down and sliced into giant disks that oozed resin around the ripped-bark edges. I inhaled deeply, funnelling in the sweet cleansing elixir of balsam. It smacked my brain with pure pleasure, instantly evoking the contented memories of long hikes in the woodland and sublime sleeps in a tent beneath the trees.

    There are some things, like hanging out in nature, that you intrinsically know to be good for you. But just in case you also need to hear it from someone else, in case what your own body and senses are telling you isn’t ironclad enough, a recent data analysis by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health concluded that women who spend time in or near green spaces tend to live longer than women who don’t.

    For everyone wondering why the researchers focused only on women, here’s a quick aside. Their decision was purely pragmatic: The data already existed, in the vast databank of the famous and ongoing Nurses’ Health Study, which began in 1976 when more than 100,000 female nurses agreed to provide regular health and lifestyle related updates for the rest of their lives.

    This data bonanza enabled the Harvard researchers to uncover that nurse participants who lived near or spent time in nature had a 12 percent lower mortality rate than their colleagues who didn’t. Furthermore, they were able to determine lower mortality rates for specific diseases, such as a 13 percent reduction in cancer mortality and a 35 percent reduction in respiratory-disease-related death for women in proximity with nature.

    While I find this all very compelling, what I’m really itching to know is why these correlations are occurring. How do green spaces help to postpone death?

    While correlation cannot determine cause, the detailed Harvard analysis did point to a complex interplay of many “protective factors” that seem to be supported and enhanced by time spent in nature. Each of these factors influences another in a positive way that exponentially increases the overall benefit. No one should be too surprised to learn that the protective factors identified include reduced levels of depression, increased physical activity, increased social engagement, and lower levels of pollution. You walk under the trees where the air is cleaner (vegetation being the natural filter that it is), you engage with friends or people you meet, you feel mentally uplifted by your surroundings and connections, and your body is grateful for the movement. To head to the woods, be it the neighbourhood park or distant hillside, is to start—or keep—the ball rolling on improved health and enhanced well-being.

    It all makes abundant sense, and by no means only for women. Numerous studies have corroborated the health benefits of nature for people in general. These include experiments conducted in the forests of Japan whose results showed that forest environments are more effective than built environments for reducing stress as measured by cortisol level, pulse rate and blood pressure.

    But really, we know all this already. We live it every time we step out and lose ourselves in nature. And we’re grateful to have so many beautiful parks and green spaces in the Capital Region. Thankfully they’re protected, but—oops—not fully immune to urban encroachment, at least not as long as highway interchanges that gobble up green space take precedence over unquantifiable benefits to human health and well-being.

    Further out of town the situation is also concerning. Our pristine forests are continually under pressure to provide commodities for selling. Our perennially popular provincial parks—the jewels in our super natural crown—keep attracting the paying multitudes even as they wither from years of budget cuts (which is as untenable as both milking and starving your best cash cow.)

    Times are changing, and one day we’ll see our green spaces as vital natural capital and then start rejigging their economic value accordingly. In the meantime, I’ll keep embracing what the essayist and naturalist John Burroughs wrote more than a century ago: “I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.”

    He didn’t need research to tell him that. There are times when the body just knows.

    Trudy credits the woodland with getting her through the teenage years. Decades later it's still keeping her sane.

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