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The healing power of nature, ‘forest bathing’ and how to de-stress

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Jason Winn and his horse Sassy take a ride on the North Rim Trail at Dimple Dell Regional Park in Sandy on Monday, Feb. 24, 2020.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Florence Williams said her world and her emotional well-being were rocked when she moved from the Rocky Mountain West to Washington, D.C., in 2012.

“I was blown away by the human noise,” she said, adding the metropolitan area was like an urban moonscape with no children playing outside.

In her book, “The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier and More Creative,” Williams described how she became depressed, not realizing how much the mountains had become her tonic. Her quest was to research that connection.

Williams is in Salt Lake City for a Tuesday night discussion on nature and healing and to answer questions posed by the host of NPR’s “Hidden Brain” podcast, Shankar Vedantam.

The event is being put on the Natural History Museum of Utah and is co-hosted by the Nature Conservancy, which invited media and advocates in the conservation arena to sit down with Williams on Monday.

“I believe we have to have a fundamental connection to nature and so many of us have lost it,” she said.

In D.C., she said, “My own mind and emotional state changed.”

She said she began to wonder how exterior landscapes affect interior landscapes.

People are too plugged into electronics and need some analog time in their lives, and people have less free time, she said.

“There’s this constant drip of stress from the time we get up in the morning until you go to bed.”

The growing body of scientific research points to the health and emotional boosts people get when they get outdoors, she emphasized.

Williams said researchers found that just 15 minutes immersed in the full sensory effect of a forest with the sounds, the smells and the sights drops a person’s respiratory and heart rate and decreases levels of cortisol — the body’s main stress hormone.

She pointed to high test scores among schoolchildren in Finland, who for every 45 minutes in class time get 15 minutes of recess.

While visiting a middle school in Indiana, she said she discovered the students there received no recess time during the day.

Other research has found that being outside for three consecutive days changes how the brain functions — in a positive way — while some studies demonstrated that exposure to outdoors boosted T-cell counts, the cells that fight pathogens and cancer, and those effects can last for as long as 30 days, she said.

But sadly, she noted, the time that people — and particularly young children — get to spend outdoors is diminishing.

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Janik Sundberg goes for a run on the North Rim Trail at Dimple Dell Regional Park in Sandy on Monday, Feb. 24, 2020.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

One survey noted that 72% of a group of mothers responded they went outside every day as children. Yet among that same group of mothers, only 26% said their children get that same experience.

With the growing amount of science-based evidence about the health effects of nature, mayors, medical professionals and others are starting to pay attention, however. Williams said there are 72 clinics in the United States that prescribe walks in the parks for their patients while there were only a handful a few years ago.

In Japan, the term “forest bathing” was coined, a phrase for a sensory experience in nature.

Becoming a certified forest bathing instructor has become a thing and in California, there is an institute that certifies successful students.

Williams said her message to people is to just get outdoors.

“And take your children with you.”

Tickets for the 7 p.m. event at Kingsbury Hall are still available.