Time spent in the natural world benefits human health

Below Article appeared originally in The American Scientist.
July-August 2011Volume 99, Number 4 Page: 301

A Walk in the Woods » American Scientist.

A Walk in the Woods

Evidence builds that time spent in the natural world benefits human health

Anna Lena Phillips

For the month of April, I decided to visit the Haw River, which flows near where I live, every day. I wouldn’t hold myself strictly to this, but I would try, and I would observe—not impartially, of course, but closely—how I felt. Some days I took leisurely walks with friends, leaning over the railing of the pedestrian bridge to watch the river, high from recent rains, and to smell the distinctive, muddy smell of the water mingled with that of the banks overrun with invasive honeysuckle. On others, coming home late at night, I drove straight down to the bridge and walked out to stare down at the dark water, a move that felt a bit like the natural-world equivalent of visiting a drive-through restaurant.

I did this because I hadn’t been spending much time at the river, even though it’s only a short walk from home, and even though I like doing it. The results of my informal experiment? I did, in fact, feel better—calmer, more relaxed, clearer-headed. I suspect that many people have similar feelings about the effects of spending time in the wilder places near where they live. Perhaps that’s why Richard Louv’s 2005 book Last Child in the Woods, which explores the relation between the natural world and children’s development, became a bestseller in the United States.

2011-07SciObsPhillipsFA.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageBut to know empirically that these experiences are beneficial—and to know exactly how they might help us—requires more than personal experience. A growing and varied body of research attempts to quantify how and why spending time in the natural world might have beneficial effects on humans’ physical and psychological health. One of the first and most well-known studies, published in Science by Richard S. Ulrich in 1984, found that patients recovering from surgery in rooms with a window facing a natural setting had shorter hospital stays and took less pain medicine than did patients whose window faced a brick wall. Since then, researchers have asked whether the presence of trees influences people’s sense of safety in inner-city neighborhoods; explored how gardening might improve quality of life for people with disabilities; and used physiolgical measures to test for restorative effects of natural environments. If some of these studies seem too specific to be useful in answering the broader question, their results in sum suggest that time spent in nature improves human health. The more difficult questions are how, and in what ways, these effects arise. These questions are not the kind that can be answered by a single, groundbreaking paper; rather, like so many of the subtle and complex problems science explores, the evidence is being deposited, small study by small study, like layers of sediment on a river bed.

One such body of work is accumulating in Japan, where researchers are investigating the physiological effects of shinrin-yoku—“forest bathing,” or, to put it plainly, taking walks in the woods. Qing Li, a professor in the Department of Hygiene and Public Health at Nippon Medical School, Tokyo, has been involved with several such studies. He and his colleagues recently measured specific physiological markers before and after study subjects took walks in a forest and in an urban control environment. The study’s sample size is small—16 male subjects—and the timescale short—effects were measured after one day trip to the forest and one to the city—but the results suggest that the forest trip had positive effects on health. Subjects’ blood pressure measured in the forest was significantly lower when compared to measurements taken in the city. Levels of the stress hormone noradrenaline, measured in urine, were also significantly lower after the forest walk than after the urban walk. And blood levels of the adrenal hormone dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate (DHEA-S) and of adiponectin, a hormone secreted by fat tissue, were higher after the forest walk but not the urban walk. The authors note that DHEA-S may contribute to heart health, among other benefits, and that lower levels of adiponectin are associated with obesity and type 2 diabetes.

Li and his coauthors, whose study appeared in the European Journal of Applied Physiology in March, speculate that the forest trip’s effects on blood pressure may be related to phytoncides, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that plants produce and release as protection from fungi and bacteria. In a separate study for which Li was also lead author, researchers unsurprisingly found higher concentrations of several phytoncides in a forest than in an urban area of Tokyo.

Another recent study, by Juyoung Lee, a researcher at the Center for Environment, Health and Field Sciences at Chiba University, Japan, and others, offers similar results. In this three-day field experiment, 12 young male subjects visited forest and urban environments. The study, published in February in Public Health, found that in the forest, subjects’ parasympathetic nervous-system activity was heightened and their sympathetic nervous-system activity suppressed. Pulse rates were lower, as were salivary levels of the adrenal hormone cortisol, which is associated with stress. Participants reported that their positive feelings increased, and negative feelings decreased, in the forest. Blood-pressure measurements, however, did not differ significantly between the forest and urban locations. The authors also measured phytoncide levels in the forest study area and found 10 different compounds, ranging in concentration from 0.3 micrograms per cubic meter to 1,336 micrograms per cubic meter.

In support of the idea that phytoncides may be responsible for some of the health effects seen in Li’s study, he and his coauthors cite a 2003 paper that found that inhalation of cedar-wood oil lowered blood pressure. A review article of forest-bathing studies, published in Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine in 2009 by Yuko Tsunetsugu and others, notes several laboratory studies that tested human responses to inhalation of plant VOCs. The results included such positive effects as lowered blood pressure and improved task performance. But to find a correlation between the mixture of phytoncides in forest air and physiological changes in humans would require experiments of more complex design. So although the idea that the very scent of the forest might improve health is appealing, determining whether it’s true and the extent of any effects will need more study.

This is just one of many avenues of inquiry that forest-bathing research opens. Can the physiological effects of studies like Li’s be replicated in larger studies, and in women and children? Do effects differ across gender and age? Do forests in varied bioregions, with different microclimates and compositions of tree species, vary in their effects on health? Do people who have grown up in one region experience different health effects in forests in their home bioregion than in other forests?

Policy questions abound as well. Carol Colfer, a cultural anthropologist and senior associate with the Center for International Forestry Research in Bogor, Indonesia, studies human use of forests in developing countries. “I suppose the logical result would be developing more or at least maintaining existing parks in cities, and expanding protected areas—but with much more serious attention to the human rights of people living in these areas,” she says of Li’s study. “Even better would be encouraging in situ conservation on people’s own lands.” Li is interested in exploring how his results could be used in medicine. “I am planning to develop forest bathing to be a preventive measure for some diseases such as depression, hypertension and cancers,” he says.

 

What’s clear is that trying to quantify a seemingly intuitive claim—humans benefit from spending time in the natural world—is turning up more complex answers, and more resulting questions, than a fir tree has needles. If policymakers take note of this work as it emerges, they might be better equipped to improve public health. For my part, I’ve extended my efforts to visit the river each day into the month of May. The weather’s better for swimming now, and the air smells as good as ever.

Species Conservation begins at home

 

Species Conservation begins at home, in our yards.  Every day we walk over things we may not see because we are too hurried but if we slowed down and looked we would find below our feet (as discussed in other blog entries here) that there is a whole other World of Adventure below our upright field of view, waay down at our feet and it relies on us for its life and very existence. Why should conserving species not begin at home in our own yards?

My yard is a cacophony of tangled native grasses and plants. I have no immaculate, pampered lawn devoid of life…  This half-acre is a vibrant ecosystem that is amazing to get out and explore in.  But occasionally, I miss things..  Those little things hiding at my feet.  Sometimes it takes a strange little teeny-tiny-PINK flower to poke its head up and saying, like Horton’s friends; “I’M HERE !”  This is what happened two weeks ago.

I was walking along in the yard one early evening when I spotted this tiny beautiful little pink flower poking its head up out of the native grass.  It was under a Sabal Palm tree in part shade.  Just a small mass of low growing thick leaves with two pretty little flowers…  Excited, I hit my books looking for an ID.  I went back out into the yard to do a survey, could I find any more of the plants?  I then did several more surveys.  I didn’t immediately see any others so where did this one come from?  Did a passing bird, my hiking shoes or pants bring it in to my yard from CREW? or from other places I go hiking?  Or did one of my nature geeky friends bring it in on their clothes?  It was growing in our sitting area… One thing was for sure, I had to carefully dig it up and pot it so it would not be trampled in its current location, or fall victim of the mower or a nibbling, passing Chihuahua (I have three.)

Its Species name is   Stenandrium dulce (Cav.) Nees  Author Roger Hammer in Everglades Wildflowers states that Stenandrium is Greek for “tight anthers” and dulce means “sweet” referring to sweet-smelling flowers.  It is usually solitary but spreads quickly from seeds and will form dense colonies in container culture – as I have it now.  It blooms all year-long.  Another common names is Sweet Shaggytuft or Pineland pinklet.  It is suitable for growing in containers.  Pinklet grows from Florida to Mexico to South America.

As I was digging the plant up I noticed a root system larger than the plant composed of some tubers.  I was amazed with how large the plant was underground It was an iceberg!  I always say, if you want to learn more about Native plants, you have to grow them!  Watch them, and live with them.  At least that works for me being Dyslexic, I learn and experience things differently. I find immersive, tactile experiences help me to remember and understand things with more depth vis limiting myself to only reading about a subject.

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My section of yard the Pinklet comes from is reminiscent of Pine Uplands, with sandy, well-drained soil (sand) so I wanted to be sure to pot it in the same type medium, from my yard.  Not commercial soil.  I water my potted plants with rain water - or tap water that I have let sit out for several days.  I’ve let this little guy sit out in the rain each storm.. to get that extra Nitrogen boost that rainwater provides.  I’m so happy it’s doing well.  I’ve provided several images of the plant so you can see its interesting stem and low growth of leaves.  The little Pinklet flowers reaching out to the Sun…

I hope the next time you go out into your yard, you take a survey to see who is around… what butterflies, birds and plants.  You might just be surprised at what and who you find out in your backyard.  Have no Native plants?  Visit your local Native garden center and bring some home.  In South West Florida, All Native Garden Center is where I go for Native plants.

Plan on visiting South West Florida?   Check out my website at this location.
I offer Star Gazing Adventures as well as Guided Hikes!   Be sure to check out the July issue of Gulfshore Life!  My business is listed as one of 25 Great Surprises to be found here in South Florida.  I am booking NOW for FALL and WINTER Star Gazing trips!

Find me in the July Gulfshore Life

Find me in the July Gulfshore Life

TURN OFF THAT TV AND GET OUTSIDE IN NATURE !  

Butterflies and Stars all in a morning!

One of the many benefits to getting up sooo early… early being, before Sunrise is that you get to watch the butterflies warming up in the morning light.  Do you like to do photography? Go out early and you will have a better chance of photographing some of the more elusive native butterflies by watching for them resting and doing their warm ups – flexing those wings for flight, on cool Fall mornings.

Here is a Gulf Fritillary in my yard soaking up early morning rays.  When I found myself initially standing outside at 7am gazing around at the night sky one of the first constellations I noticed overhead was Orion the Hunter   Just look for the three belt stars in a row that tell you it’s Orion!   Near the belt stars is the bright planet Jupiter, also overhead and down lower, nearer to Orion is the dog star Sirius in the constellation of Canis Major

To obtain a free star chart to print out in .PDF format, to help you find your way around the cool Fall night sky visit the link here and if you are visiting or live in South West Florida book a Star Gazing Adventure via my website located at this link I offer programs for families, homeschool, and many other groups.

Gulf Fritillary ButterflyGulf Fritillary Butterfly

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Eastern Screech Owls -an Album

In early June momma Screech brought two little fluffy Owlets around to show.  They were barely flying – more like bombing around … and they were very needy with their calls for food!    Here is mom below, with one of her fledgling chicks.  I have a long relationship with the screech owls around our neighborhood and every year we get to see them as they perch and hunt in and around our half acre for insects here in Lehigh.  
The tree below is over our Labyrinth and I was sitting under it when she brought them by.  Yes, I try to always have a camera on hand in the Backyard Universe just in case!  
Mom and Owlet

Mom and Owlet

Above and below a fluffly barely fledgling Screech closer up, sitting in the tree above with mom.  Mom had left them up in the tree overhead while she went off to hunt in daylight.  The only issue is, during daylight hours they can be attacked by other birds that find them and this was an open area.  I helped mom out and kept the mocking birds and jays away while the little ones sat up in the tree calling for mom to bring them yummy beetles from nearby backyards.  They were not that far from their nest in a clump of Sabal Palms behind our lot.  (We let our native yard grow tall and wild in the back for cover and hunting areas for the little ones.)  
Fluffly chick

Fluffly chick

In the below images they are much older but still sporting some pin feathers.  The don’t need mom to watch after or protect them from attacking birds.  They know to hide in the shadows during daylight hours until nightfall.

Fledgling1_01

Hiding in among the Bombax tree leaves… a wide eyed fledgling Screech.  300mm Nikon lens

Other Fledgling

I am outside, after dinner looking for the screeches.  Sometimes after a rain I hear them or late at night calling with their soft whinny call…  Eventually they will move out to other areas of the neighborhood to hunt over the Summer.  I hope they are greeted with as much awe, enjoyment and safe haven as they are met with here on the half acre.  Owls like this hunt insects, small bats, mice and snakes.  In yards sprayed with pesticides, they may suffer through their food sources that are impacted by the pesticide applications.  
I have found that when our rodent or snake numbers go up here at the Backyard Universe that we often see an influx of hawks and owls to feed on them.  It’s an intricate, connected age old cycle that will balance itself  out if we allow it to and don’t interrupt it via artificial and deadly means.  If you would like to build Screech Owl Nest Boxes for your yard, go to this link  in my prior article and read down it for the link to the nesting box instructions.
 

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Screech Owls New Diggs, up in the Bombax Tree.

Screech Owls New Diggs

The Backyard Universe is truly a hub of activity lately…   every evening the mockingbirds are giving the little Screech Owls a difficult time when they make their appearance known.  You can’t miss the disturbed calls of the mockingbirds and the hisses of the Screech owls.  It was at this latest activity that I decided to read online about Screech Owl Boxes.  They had a nest last year in an old palm snag however that snag fell over this year.  After doing some research I ran across a website for the Treasure Coast Wildlife Center located in Palm City Florida.  They actually had a .PDF file with information about Screech owls AND how to build nesting boxes for them.  It just happens that the boxes for the Screech Owls can also be used by the American Kestrel.  Click here for the Download .PDF link to make your own Screech Owl Nesting Box.

We placed our box up onto a Bombax  (African Floss) Tree, part of a stand of them that is along the back of our half acre.  Now we watch and wait to see if the box is noticed and who takes interest!  The box took only a couple hours to make and cost us $13.00 in pine.  It will weather over time.  Please be sure to follow the directions of the .PDF, don’t paint the box.  Now when I go outside I have yet another possible source of activity to keep an eye on.   We have raised other clusters of Screech Owls here, watched them grown up…  I hope you will consider placing a box in your neighborhood backyard.   A big thank you to the Treasure Coast Wildlife Center for making the easy to follow directions available.  Check out their website!     AND be sure to visit my new Photo Blog called Metta Nature Photography  Click on the images there for full page views of everything else *outside* of my  BackyardUniverse coverage.    

Eastern Screech Owl

Image of an Eastern Screech Owl sitting on a stump in the BackyardUniverse.   All images are by me, Linda S. Jacobson unless otherwise noted.

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Lining up Projects for Summer..

 

aBackyard Universe has been humming right along, beginning with the Painted Buntings learning about their new spiffy feeder I picked up at Tractor Supply.  It’s squirrel proof and just the right size for smaller birds like Buntings.  I’ve had two males and a female hanging around, daily, this year.  Now they come and go in the feeder with ease.  A feeder like this keeps the larger birds out that can drive Buntings away, birds like Cardinals and Blue Jays whom I’ve seen directly challenge the Buntings as well as other smaller birds for feeder access.

The Buntings

 

On Saturday, while attending the CREW Land and Water Trust Wildflower Festival  (I also led two children’s Wildflower hikes) I met a new (to me) Native Plant Nursery called All Native Garden Center, Nursery & Landscapes.   I have to include, I LOVE the name of their website, NO LAWN.   But then I am a proponent for yards and spaces that can feed us, that can feed communities and be a home and shelter for wildlife.  I made quite a haul of new plants for the yard and Labyrinth and I’m going back for the Native Pennyroyal plants tomorrow.

I also visited a table sponsored by the Florida Wildflower Co-op.  I came away with seeds galore to work on starting in pots as we head into Summer here in South West Florida I have: Southeastern Sunflower Helianthus agrestis, Chapman’s Blazing Star Liatris chapmanii, Yellow Sneezeweed Helenium amarum and Partridge Pea Chamaecrista fasciculata ::

 

seeds to start!

 

I think these will keep me busy for awhile.  Around this time every year I end up with the same issue as I approach the hotter and more humid Summer months…  Withdrawal from giving programs to the Public, and Volunteering.  I literally go from “full force” Volunteering and giving Astronomy presentations for four months to – a clear schedule.  And I see it fast approaching again this year in my appointment book as I “run out” of things to do and places to be.

Should  you find yourself in “The Summer Doldrums” as well try planting a Butterfly or vegetable garden and invite Nature in.  She will certainly keep you busy!  If you have a lack of space – or not,  try planting a butterfly garden in a container!  These make wonderful family projects that everyone can participate in, and they add a lot of color to a small space with little effort and cost.

While you are at it, make a basket up to attract neighborhood Hummingbirds!   -I think I will be doing this as well over the Summer.  I’ll add it to my list of things to look for plant wise when I go to All Native tomorrow.   Watch here for updates to aBackyard Universe.  Feel free to share your Native Gardening experiences here as well.  I am located in Lehigh Acres Florida.  Just inland from Fort Myers on a half acre.  A very BUSY half acre!   Meanwhile, visit my AVON  store online via this link  Mother’s Day is fast approaching, and in purchasing from my  online store you will be supporting small business.  Thank You!!!!

 

 

Something Fishy in aBackyard Universe this morning..

I had just mentioned to someone last night on my FaceBook  “Pay attention to birds because THEY will tell you what’s going on in the neighborhood or on the trail”   And it’s true, IF you do choose listen to Nature, she will share important things with you.  Like this morning as I was walking out onto the lanai to let the Chihuahuas out I heard this very distinctive call to my left…  

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The neighborhood Osprey was a lot closer to me than the last time I blogged about him – when he was 200′ distant in another neighbors yard…  So I quietly stood and fired off images until the Mockingbird chased him away.  That was a very narrow window I had to enjoy his presence in and I’m grateful for it!  I do hope someone else had the enjoyment of watching him with his meal, that everyone was not glued to the TV and missed an opportunity.

Seeing an Osprey close in like this is a rarity for me.  I’m not near a large body of water such as a beach or lake, so the Ospreys I see occasionally here have travelled to and from larger water sources, or perhaps fished the deep canal that runs along behind (to the East of)  Lehigh Acres Middle School, which isn’t far from me.  I do hope YOU had a chance to get outside this weekend and soak up some wonderful Vitamin N – the Nature Vitamin, and I hope you enjoy the photos.    Visit my website here to see what else I am up to.  If you are in Lehigh Acres Florida and enjoy Nature too, send me an e-mail and say hello!  OK, now a Catbird is screaming my way….  It’s a busy place here!