Sun Country Health

‘Medicine’ in the Forest
By Bob Naeye

Horseshoe Trail Horseshoe Trail Taking regular walks in the woods can soothe the soul and refresh the mind. But according to Med Center physician Matthew Silvis, spending time in nature does a lot more than that. It can lower blood pressure, reduce stress hormones, boost the immune system, and even accelerate recovery from surgery.

Silvis is in a position to know. He’s the vice chair for clinical operations in the Med Center’s Department of Family and Community Medicine and co-director of the Brain Recovery and Concussion Center. He also serves as the team physician for the Hershey Bears, Hershey High School and Lebanon Valley College.

Silvis summarized the latest medical research on the health benefits of “forest bathing” at a jam packed Feb. 8 meeting of the Manada Conservancy. The meeting was held at the new South Hanover Township administration building, just north of Union Deposit off Route 39.

The concept of forest bathing originated in Japan in the mid-1980s where it’s known as shinrin-yoku. Most Japanese live stressful lives in crowded urban environments. Depression and suicide rates were soaring. Japanese researchers found that by driving city dwellers to the woods three times per week and having them take leisurely strolls, the participants’ mental and physical health dramatically improved.

Silvis described research done in many countries, including the United States. These studies, published in leading medical journals, show that natural experiences have therapeutic qualities that measurably improve health. For example, a Canadian study shows that residents of city blocks with more trees have lower rates of cardiovascular disease.

Even simple natural things such as the scent of pine trees have restorative effects. Odors we barely notice connect us with the organisms in the soil that produce them.

“The medicine is just being in the forest,” Silvis said.

And that’s the key point. It’s not just exercise in nature that brings health benefits. Spending quality time in nature and being immersed in all five senses is good for mental and physical health.

“Forest bathing does not mean rushing through the woods. Forest bathing means slowing it down,” Silvis said.

Studies also show that gardening improves health in a number of demonstrable ways, especially in combating depression.

Forest bathing is gaining popularity in the United States, where it’s desperately needed. “Less than 3 percent of Americans live a healthy lifestyle,” Silvis said. “We have a lot of stressed-out individuals, and we’re not good at moving. We don’t get enough exercise.”

Silvis pointed to recent studies showing that just sitting in front of a television or computer increases the risk of heart disease, cancer and diabetes. A study in Australia showed that for every hour adults watch TV after age 25, they lose an average of 21.8 minutes of life expectancy. In other words, watching the Eagles win the Super Bowl reduced a viewer’s life by about an hour, on average.

And it’s not just a matter of how long we live. Advanced nations like the U.S. have an abundance of medicines and technologies that can extend life. But as Silvis explained, people age much more gracefully if they remain physically active. Silvis said medical schools should do a better job of spreading this message to their students, who should then pass it on to their patients.

Silvis practices what he preaches. Besides teaching these concepts to his patients, he’s an avid gardener and runner. His favorite haunts include the loop trail around Shank Park and the pathways behind Hotel Hershey.

“I actually relax in the outdoors, that’s my sanctuary. That’s where I can really breathe and re-set myself,” he said. “People feel better when they’re in natural environments.”

Manada Conservancy president Richard Zaino closed the meeting by announcing that the organization will be conducting more education programs of this type.

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