Kairo and Thorin Brunson explore a stream at Seward Bluff Forest Preserve on a sunny day.

Healing in Nature

Most of us always suspected it was true: Spending time in natural settings just makes us feel better. Now data from researchers has caught up with Mom’s wise admonition to “Go outside and play!” Forest Preserves of Winnebago County and the Natural Land Institute are launching programs that encourage us to reap the full benefits of some of the highest-quality natural areas in the Midwest.

Kairo and Thorin Brunson explore a stream at Seward Bluff Forest Preserve on a sunny day.
Kairo and Thorin Brunson explore a stream at Seward Bluff Forest Preserve on a sunny day.

The Old Northwest Territory boasts some of the best healthcare systems in the country. But, beyond our outstanding hospitals and clinics, there’s another valuable health resource that’s often overlooked: Nature.
Humans have an affinity for nature. We delight in its beauty. We seek it for recreation. But did you know that connecting with nature also makes you healthier? Numerous recent studies reveal that access to nature has tremendous preventative and therapeutic effects on body and mind.
Forest Preserves of Winnebago County (FPWC) and the Natural Land Institute (NLI) are launching programs to encourage residents and visitors to reap the benefits of some of the highest quality natural areas in the Midwest.
“We want to raise awareness of nature’s multiple health benefits for individuals and the entire community,” says Kim Johnsen, director of marketing & membership for the Natural Land Institute. “Most people understand that the work we do protecting ecosystems is good for environmental health, but the effects of nature on their own health is not really on their radar.”
While our protected woods, prairies, wetlands and rivers provide myriad ecological services such as filtering drinking water and purifying air, they also offer affordable and accessible treatments for a wide range of health conditions.
Forest Preserves of Winnebago County and the Natural Land Institute are not lone voices; providing connection to nature as a health solution is an international trend. Medical research from around the world suggests that doses of nature can deliver powerful benefits. This has spawned a new movement and communities throughout the country are creating campaigns to promote connection with nature as an effective and affordable health intervention.
The National Park Service has launched a program titled Parks RX to encourage and assist open space agencies to create park prescription programs that promote health-enhancing activities. Forest Preserves of Winnebago County recently launched a Nature Prescription public information campaign to educate the community about the specific health benefits of connecting with nature in forest preserves. The campaign’s messages, developed in partnership with students at the University of Illinois College of Medicine, is being disseminated via social media, events and printed materials.
“Nature Prescription adds relevance to what we’re doing as a public open space agency,” says Mike Holan, executive director of FPWC. “As an educational campaign, Nature Prescription helps the public understand that our protected natural lands are an important public health resource, as well as places for recreation and education.”

The State of Our Health

Journalist and author Richard Louv was among the first to identify and coin the term ‘nature deficit disorder,’ a multi-faceted condition resulting from lack of contact with nature. Since the publication of Louv’s 2005 book, Last Child In the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, thousands of studies have documented the alarming physiological, psychological and social impact of disconnection with the natural world.
A 2010 report by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit group that focuses on U.S. healthcare issues, revealed that the average weekly electronic-media exposure for U.S. children is almost 45 hours, more time than most parents spend on full-time jobs. The resulting lack of physical activity and a growing disconnect with the natural environment have been linked to obesity and obesity-related diseases in children and adults, including Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, asthma and liver disease, as well as vitamin D deficiency, osteoporosis, stress, depression, attention deficit disorder and myopia.
The good news is that a simple remedy is as close as your nearest preserve, park or garden.

What The Science Says

“Through the decades, parks advocates, landscape architects and popular writers have consistently claimed that nature had healing powers, but until recently, their claims haven’t undergone rigorous scientific assessment,” says Frances E. (Ming) Kuo, Ph.D., who directs the Landscape and Human Health Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
After reviewing hundreds of studies examining nature’s effects on health, Kuo believes the answer lies in nature’s ability to enhance the functioning of the body’s immune system. The research identified as many as 21 possible pathways between nature and good health.
“The realization that there are so many pathways helps explain not only how nature promotes health, but also why nature has such huge, broad effects on health,” Kuo explains. “Nature doesn’t just have one or two active ingredients. It’s more like a multivitamin that provides us with all sorts of the nutrients we need. That’s how nature can protect us from all these different kinds of diseases – cardiovascular, respiratory, mental health, musculoskeletal, etc. – simultaneously.”
Not surprisingly, many of the most dramatic health benefits can be attributed to being physically active in nature. Exercising in nature has benefits that go above and beyond the benefits gained by exercising indoors, including improvements in mental well-being, self-esteem and lessened depression. But research indicates that connecting with nature also affords powerful benefits well beyond physical fitness. Just relaxing, meditating or observing wildlife in a lush natural setting can enhance mood and boost energy. Research has shown a link between the size and quality of green space and the resulting health benefits. Settings with higher biological quality correlate to greater benefits.
Nature’s efficacy increases if you’re near a stream or pond. Neuroscientists and psychologists have found that waterscapes have powerful therapeutic effects conducive to improved mental and emotional health. Fortunately, Winnebago County is blessed with four rivers and 42 forest preserves, as well as the Natural Land Institute’s 12 regional preserves that contain dozens of restored streams, wetlands and ponds rich with wildlife.

Pam Munger: Nature Lover, Cancer Survivor

Pam Munger’s favorite place is Nygren Wetland Preserve in Winnebago County. She visits year-round to walk, observe and photograph birds. Spending time with wildlife at Nygren Wetland has helped her to heal.
Munger is a cancer survivor and attributes birdwatching to helping her feel better both physically and emotionally. In fact, her doctor asked Munger what she was doing because her recovery was going so well. She told him about birdwatching and spending almost all of her time in nature. He told her to keep doing what she was doing.
“Both my oncologist and liver specialist said they believe it has helped me a lot and helped me to have a positive and good attitude.”
Munger volunteered at Nygren Wetland many years ago, before she became sick with myelofibrosis, a rare bone marrow cancer. After she went through treatment for cancer, she started visiting Nygren’s observation deck to watch birds that find refuge in the wetland. The setting has become a refuge for her, too.
Munger describes being with nature as a way to mentally and emotionally reset.
“It’s fun for me to view birds and identify them. I don’t think about being sick when I’m doing this. I have gotten so much better by forgetting illness and getting wrapped up in nature.” Her excitement about capturing a bird on film often pushes her to walk further than she thought she could.
Munger’s experience has convinced her that nature can help anyone.
“Get yourself some nature therapy even if you’re not ill,” she suggests.
To those who are facing health challenges, she says, “Even if you’re too ill to walk far, get some help so you can get out and see beautiful nature around you. Try it, you will love it.”

Fill Your Nature Prescription

Are you ready to access the health prescription that’s free and has no side effects? Run through prairie grass, hike a trail, wade in a stream or watch a spider in her web.
With more than 12,000 acres of protected natural lands, Winnebago County offers plenty of opportunities to access nature’s tonic. Just a few minutes from your door there’s dappled sunlight to kiss your skin, the liquid voice of a flowing stream, a rainbow of wildflowers and a symphony of birdsong to nurture you. The vision of Natural Land Institute is that people recognize they are a part of nature, not apart from nature.
In the Forest Preserves of Winnebago County, you can hike, picnic, paddle, birdwatch, camp, fish, play golf and explore nature. Both the Natural Land Institute and Forest Preserves of Winnebago County offer all sorts of events and programs that are ideal opportunities for families and individuals to discover some of the region’s best natural areas through guided hikes and nature education events.
Volunteering to help restore habitat and monitor wildlife is a rewarding way to nurture your health and the health of the land, while forging new friendships. Get complete schedules of nature-based activities and subscribe to newsletters at naturalland.org and winnebagoforest.org.