by Lorraine Wilde and Katrina Lyon
Many people choose Bellingham and Whatcom County as their home because of the quality of life here. A major contributor to that quality includes the variety of year-round opportunities to get outside — to commune with nature. Perhaps it’s listening to leaves rattle in the wind as you walk or bike on a Greenways trail, or being watched by a curious seal while paddling on Bellingham Bay, or simply taking in the sweet scents, sights and sounds of our glorious shared “backyard” from a park bench.
Scientific studies continue to prove what you may already know about experiences outside. Time spent in nature has a positive effect on your mental, emotional and physical health. That is the principle behind Recreation Northwest’s new Public Health Campaign, Parkscriptions.
“Parkscriptions partners with local health care providers to prescribe time outdoors to their patients,” explains Parkscriptions Program Director Elizabeth Nelson. The positive health benefits are plentiful and include increased longevity, reduced anxiety, improved heart health, sounder sleep and so much more. “Parkscriptions’ goal is to make it easy for everyone to get outside and start reaping those benefits today to help you live a healthier, happier lifestyle,” adds Nelson.
Science Behind Parkscriptions
You may have noticed the range of scientific studies in the news confirming the health benefits of time in nature. Just a little time outside can have significant, lasting positive impacts that start at the biochemical level in our cells and expand outward to help our bodies and minds perform at optimal levels.
A January 2016 National Geographic article, “This Is Your Brain on Nature,” notes, “A 15-minute walk in the woods causes measurable changes in physiology. Overall participants showed a 16 percent decrease in the stress hormone cortisol, a 2 percent drop in blood pressure, and a 4 percent drop in heart rate.”
The Center for Disease Control (HealthDay News, 2003) estimates that “a difference of 100 calories of exercise per person per day — a 20-minute walk — could eliminate the nation’s obesity epidemic.”
A 2006 study in Japan (Li et al., 2006) confirmed that exposure to forests boosts our immune system. While we breathe in the fresh air, we’re taking in natural phytoncides, airborne chemicals that plants give off to protect themselves from insects. Phytoncides have antibacterial and antifungal qualities that help plants fight disease.
Studies show that our bodies respond to these airborne chemicals by increasing the number and activity of an immune system superhero, a type of white blood cell called natural killer cells. These cells locate and kill tumor- and virus-infected cells in our bodies. Researchers continue to explore the role that exposure to forests might play in preventing certain kinds of cancer.
Benefits to physical health are intimately connected to our emotional and mental health as well. A 2010 study in Environmental Science and Technology showed that short engagements in green exercise improved both self-esteem and mood. The presence of water generated even greater effects. For self-esteem, the greatest change was in the young and those struggling with mental illness (Barton and Pretty, 2010).
These studies are just the tip of the iceberg. With the health benefits well-documented, the Parkscriptions program has created online tools that enable healthcare providers to write Parkscriptions for their patients. These same tools can be used for free by everyone to “self-parkscribe” as well.
Find the Right Park for You
Need paved trails, park benches and access to restrooms? Want to know which parks in Bellingham allow dogs off-leash? Looking for a playground in Everson? At WhatcomParkFinder.org you can search for local parks and filter that selection by an array of features and locations. Whether directed by your healthcare provider, or self-parkscribed, you can choose the park that is just right for your mobility, fitness level and personal needs.
The online WhatcomParkFinder.org search tool has been designed to help you and healthcare professionals access park information for all 186 parks in Whatcom County. This handy tool will enable you to experience nature — and all of its health benefits — close to home and with confidence. Thanks to Washington State Parks and ParksRx America, all Washington state parks appear in the database as well.
“WhatcomParkFinder.org is designed to help you get over any hurdles that prevent you from spending time outdoors,” notes Nelson. “By breaking through some of the barriers to access, everyone in our community can enjoy the many health benefits of time spent outside.” Whether you need variety, predictability or inspiration, you can find the perfect park to get your regular dose of nature.
Parkscriptions Certification Program
Are you looking for a walking, hiking or biking group? Hoping to make some new friends through outdoor activities? In partnership with the City of Bellingham Parks Department, Parkscriptions recently developed criteria for Parkscriptions Certified Programs. These programs are marked in leisure guides, print materials, and on their websites by a green square with a “P” in it.
“Parkscriptions program staff continue to identify nature programs throughout Whatcom County that fit the criteria, as well as expand awareness and accessibility to those programs,” adds Nelson. “Parkscriptions is an excellent, free public resource for finding positive outdoor experiences.”
As a Bellingham-based nonprofit, Recreation Northwest is dedicated to promoting outdoor recreation and bringing people together to enjoy, preserve and improve the places where we play. Along with Parkscriptions, other programs include:
• Stewardship of Fairhaven Park — they maintain the trail system, remove invasive species, improve access and restore wetland habitat through native plantings, and
• Supporting the development of Washington’s recreation economy — monthly Basecamp (outdoor industry) networking events are held in Bellingham and Seattle as well as the Recreation Northwest EXPO each spring. “
Everyone is welcome to learn more about the positive health benefits of time in nature and get involved in Parkscriptions and other Recreation Northwest programs,” explains Nelson. “You can visit us online at www.RecreationNorthwest.org and www.Parkscriptions.org and follow us on Facebook and Instagram (@Parkscriptions and @RecreationNorthwest). Then, don’t forget to parkscribe regularly at WhatcomParkFinder.org.”
• Barton, J., Pretty, J. (2010). “What is the best dose of nature and green exercise for improving mental health? A multi-study analysis,” Environmental Science and Technology. 44: 3947-3955. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov./pubmed/20337470.
• HealthDay News (2003). “Neighborhoods That Nudge People to Exercise,” 2003. https://consumer.healthday.com/environmental-health-information-12/environment-health-news-233/neighborhoods-that-nudge-people-to-exercise-515959.html
• Li, Q., Nakadai, A., Matsushima, H., Miyazaki, Y., Krensky, A., Kawada, T., Morimoto, K. (2006). “Phytoncides (Wood Essential Oils) Induce Human Natural Killer Cell Activity,” Immunopharmacology and Immunotoxicology, 28:319-333. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16873099.
• Williams, F. (2016). “This Is Your Brain on Nature,” National Geographic Magazine, p. 229.
Lorraine Wilde is owner of the public relations company Wilde World Communications and has lived in Whatcom County for more than 25 years. She has published more than 250 articles and blogs nationally, helping small businesses and organizations spread positive messages. She earned her master’s degree in Environmental Science from Western Washington University’s Huxley College of the Environment and cares deeply about this place she calls home.
Katrina Lyon has been providing a full range of graphic design services to a variety of clients for more than 20 years. She believes in the power of quality design to inform audiences, stand out from the competition and clarify branding. From concept to launch, she’s creative, organized and detail-oriented. In her spare time, she enjoys getting outside with her family in beautiful Pacific Northwest.