Bill Frist, Contributor
The coronavirus pandemic has stolen much from us: the company of our friends, the variety of our daily activity, the color of our social occasions, and—for too many—the stability of our livelihoods. It thrusts us into physical distancing, imposed isolation, and loneliness.
But one unexpected good fortune this crisis brings forth is the dramatic unveiling of nature as a powerful healer when isolation must be transiently the norm. Nature is the antidote to loneliness, the counter to dis-connectedness, and the haven beyond the confines of our homes. The springtime abounds with life and regeneration. What we have so painfully but dutifully (and temporarily) lost in our human social connections, we can gain in constructive solitude and wellbeing by purposefully wandering into the wonderment of the outdoors and nature.
I’m blessed that I am able to work from home and pack in a highly structured, much more efficient and more productive schedule than I had anticipated: full days of conference calls and writing and podcast generation. But my wife Tracy and I, like everyone else, are forcibly isolated from family and friends. The insidious stress slowly builds and the mind unpredictably plays confusing tricks.
My home for these weeks is our farm deep in rural America, in high mountain meadows with new colors of Spring popping up daily. Each late afternoon I leave my pressures of deadlines and unmet expectations and minutes later I’m outside looking down from a hillside on a rushing creek, swollen over its banks from early morning rains, listening to the piercing, chaotic cacophony of peepers (tiny water frogs), smelling the fragrance of early spring flowers, wondering how the abundant blue violets could blanket so completely large patches of ground, observing the seventeen newborn April calves on the opposite hill chasing each other playfully as mommas look on, listening to coyotes howling searchingly in the adjacent valley as the sun falls mountain-edge, watching paired geese gracefully flying low up the creek toward the beaver pond, feeling the strong afternoon breeze as it swishes through nearby branches. We quietly marvel at the scattered puffy, semi-threatening dark clouds juxtaposed with the deep blue sky just beyond, and Tracy points to the first single star.
This is what nature gives us: space to heal and grow in these difficult days. The only thing we must do is be still and listen.
“We need the tonic of wildness,” the Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden, his famed account of living in nature’s solitude. “At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable… We can never have enough of nature.”
Although most Americans have remained in place, safe at home orders have led millions to retreat from congested cities to the countryside. Rural communities, especially those not far from major metropolitan centers, have seen major influxes of temporary residents leaving their urban neighborhoods for the homes of friends or family in more secluded locations, where the vast expanse of nature and clean air and open spaces are available right outside the door. Urban Americans making this temporary move are being exposed for more extended periods of time—some the first time—to the powerful “tonic of wilderness”. And even those who remain in the city have found that parks and undeveloped areas are the only spaces open to them outside the confinement of their own homes.
Americans are spending more time staying active outdoors and reaping the many benefits to physical and mental wellbeing that such exposure creates. We know that with increased activity levels, the body can stay fit and enhance immunity. And immersion in nature can reduce stress, increase happiness, and promote personal meaning or purpose.
Rob McDonald and Heather Tallis, lead scientists with The Nature Conservancy, cite numerous studies that demonstrate strong correlation between access to the outdoors and improved health and well-being.[i] A cohort study in Los Angeles tracked the health metrics of more than 3,000 children across some 20 years: it found an association between a lower body mass index (BMI) and living within 500 meters of a park. Other studies support the positive influence of exposure to nature on improved mental health. Stress reduction has been demonstrated in both self-evaluation and decreased cortisol levels.
Another investigation conducted in England evaluated how neighborhood tree cover within 250 meters of a house was associated with mental health conditions: it found 50% less depression and 43% less self-reported stress in neighborhoods with at least 20% forest cover, and 56% less anxiety in neighborhoods with at least 30% forest cover. Being among natural areas allows us to leave the environmental stressors of work or interactions with others in enclosed spaces. We literally escape the confines of civilization for the freedom of the wilderness.
The increasing recognition of time outdoors to improve health and wellbeing has shaped public health policy. For example, even before our current situation, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have included increasing physical activity through the construction of parks and other dedicated natural areas as community-level public health goals.
When getting sick, proximity to nature may aid recovery. As I wrote in a 2017 article in Forbes on the positive influence of nature on human health, I first learned the lesson of how hospital patients benefitted from closeness to the environment directly from my dad through his community medical practice. When I was a child, he would take me on his hospital rounds to see patients. Pointing out the layout of hallways and rooms and positions of windows, he had observed over the years that patients heal faster if exposed to natural light and views of the natural world outside.
The scientific literature has since proven my father’s doctorly wisdom true. In a 1984 study in Science, patients recovering from gallbladder surgery were randomly assigned to rooms with a view of a natural environment or a rooms with a view of a busy highway: recovery time was shorter for those with the natural view when accounting for confounding factors.
While fresh air and the inspiring beauty of nature will not save us from the pandemic or treat the virus, they will ameliorate the pain and suffering caused by isolation and powerfully promote overall well-being. When safe physical distancing is abided and natural resources are respected, quality time in nature’s sanctuary will definitely move us toward mental and physical harmony at a time when uncertainty rules.
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