Park City’s wildflower covered hillsides and 400 miles of public mountain trails offers an ideal location to re-connect with nature. Named one of the 20 prettiest towns in the United States (Forbes Magazine Traveler, 2008), the area attracts 3 million visitors each year, half in the summer and another 1.5 million in the winter. What visitors may not realize is they are continuing a tradition of taking time away for rest that dates back as far as the 1800’s in Europe. It was during this period that taking a vacation became fashionable and one of the popular retreats was to head into the mountains. These trips however were not primarily for recreation, vacationing to the mountains was done to improve health. At the Advice of a Physician While most people know about the health benefits of sport and recreation, the health and well-being that results from contact with nature is less understood. Take for example the story of Isabella Bird Bishop (1831 – 1904), the first woman inducted into the Royal Geographical Society. Isabella was said to have been frequently ill while in her home in Britain with “vapours and other non-descript ailments”. At the advice of her physician she traveled to Canada and the Rocky Mountains in the US where she reported being in good health.
Time in Nature Under Review Through the history of industrialization, our relationship to nature has changed. In the 1900’s, 40 percent of people lived on farms, yet by 1990 this figure had already dropped to 1.9%. Skip forward to the 21st century and we find that people spend less time in nature then even 50 years ago. Just how dependent we are on nature for our well-being is only just beginning to receive serious attention from researchers working in the fields of ecology, biology, psychology and psychiatry. According to research by Anita Pryor, at the School of Health and Social Development at Deakin University, this move away from nature is taking a toll on public health. Figures from the World Bank and the World Health Organization warn that mental health disorders, which currently form 10% of disease throughout the world are anticipated to rise to 15% by the year 2020. At this rate mental disease and depression is poised to become the greatest worldwide health issue in the future.
Existing studies clearly show that while humans are totally dependent on nature for our most basic material needs such as food, shelter and water, we also depend on nature for psychological, emotional and spiritual needs. Being in nature, or simply viewing nature has been found to provide, “feelings of pleasure, sustained attention or interest, ‘relaxed wakefulness’, and diminution of negative emotions, such as anger and anxiety”, as described in Prior’s research.
An Easier Pill to Swallow The experience of nature has been shown to have therapeutic benefits on our health. For instance, contact with nature can lower blood pressure and cholesterol, improve one’s outlook on life and reduce stress. Spending time in nature has also been shown to help reduce the risk factors associated with addition. Dr. Robert Greenway, working at the Sonoma State University Psychology Department in California studied the effects of outdoor trips on his students over a period of 30 years. What he found was that 90% felt more alive, more energetic and reported an increased feeling of well-being. In addition they also said that the experience made it possible for them to help break a mental addition. Many Park City residents and visitors will intuitively understand the health and well-being benefits that can be gained from nature. However studies that provide empirical evidence to support this experience are important as they help to provide strategies for communities and policy makers to prevent and treat diseases such as mental illness. Ayurvedic, Tibetan, Native American and Traditional Chinese medicines dating back 5000 years all promote the importance of maintaining a physical, emotional and spiritual connection with nature for well-being and health. As strong scientific and research into the healing benefits of nature begins to accumulate, Western medicine may now have the opportunity to catch up. For urban dwellers seeking well-being, whether through resources for addicts in Tennessee or therapy in California, they may simply find that in the future the doctor will prescribe the mountains of Park City Utah for some contact with nature to heal the body and mind.