“We walk together. We talk. We say ‘good morning’ in every language we know.”
Mona Koh’s long scarf swayed and her stocking cap bobbed as she eagerly explained to our group how she helps convene “anyone who wants to come” every Saturday morning in Oakland, CA for some restorative time outdoors. Working with Dr. Nooshin Razani, founder of the Center for Nature and Health in Oakland, they promote walking together as a healthful and community-building activity “that stretches across generations, races, languages.”
Mona and others led this morning’s walk on the nearby Bridger-Teton National Forest as an opener to the 2018 SHIFT conference in Jackson, WY. SHIFT stands for “Shaping How we Invest for Tomorrow,” with this gathering focused squarely on sharing and activating the immense health benefits of time out of doors. More than 300 scientific studies bolster this argument, pointing to how exposure to nature reduces stress, boosts immunities, enhances memory, can help with chronic pain, stimulates creativity, and more.
Demographics, lifestyle choices, and high healthcare costs are driving the urgency of this nascent movement. With 80 percent of Americans living in urbanized areas, sedentary screen time consuming large chunks of people’s day, and healthcare costs creating economic stress, a cottage industry of “Outdoor Rx” practitioners sees an opening for low-cost and long-term gains.
Dr. Robert Zarr, a pediatrician in Washington, DC, regularly “prescribes” a regimen of time outside, pointing patients to a specific park or natural area identified in his database as being near their home. He is helping build out the roster of “prescribable places,” and he notes that his nonprofit organization, Park Rx America now signs up 15 healthcare professionals each month who agree to prescribe nature as part of a holistic approach to health. I spoke with an OB-GYN who is focusing more of her time teaching principles of shinrin-yoku or “forest bathing,” and she’s not alone.
Our morning walk gave us occasional glimpses of the iconic Teton Range, but the real stars of this excursion were the stories of community groups, volunteers, and health professionals reconnecting people with the outdoors. Because low-income and minority populations often lack access to public lands, thus exacerbating health challenges in their communities, some groups are focusing on trail-building projects.
A young community organizer from Brownsville, TX pointed to research showing that when a trail is located within a quarter-mile, 22 percent of the population will experience improved health from using it. Avery Harmon with the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy in Baltimore explained how a new bike trail in his neighborhood has opened up new healthy recreational opportunities.
Public lands – National Forests, National Parks, urban parks, and so forth – occupy a critical niche in how and where Americans can experience and benefit from nature. For example, the National Forest System includes 155,000 miles of trail (the largest system in the world) while America’s 562 National Wildlife Refuges offer natural settings often very close to major cities. And, America’s public land managers such as the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Park Service are increasingly embracing their role of connecting an urbanized population with healthy and memorable outdoor experiences, even wilderness and deep immersion experiences.
The nature and health connection spans an enormous number of topics, disciplines, and approaches. It simultaneously draws on ancient philosophies and cutting edge medical research. It fuses environmental stewardship with recreation. It highlights connections between social justice and public investment. It bridges new research results and long-held common sense solutions (parents everywhere have commanded their children “to just get outside and play”).
It can be complex. But it can also be wonderfully simple. As in, just go out for walk.