Commentary: Get out and get healthier

By Jim Russell
Empire Press Correspondent

I had stopped walking my dog Haley at daybreak in the woods near my home until two days ago. Five minutes after we got outside, I felt a pleasant relaxation.

Dark green tall timbers towered above me with branches offering shade in the green grass instead of walking under telephone poles with wires running to transformers above asphalt streets and gravel shoulders.

Music from songbirds, quail, squirrels and crows surrounded me as we walked. The faraway hum of traffic was muted. The air was fresher, almost moist.

Get out everybody, into nature.

I feel my health being restored in that natural setting. And evidence about the medical value of the natural environment is motivating medical health officials and community leaders around the world to make it easier for people to access.

The January 2016 edition of National Geographic reported, “Perhaps no one has embraced the medicalization of nature with more enthusiasm than the South Koreans.” Karen and I visited Seoul in May and June. We learned that since 2003, city and business leaders such as Samsung have torn down the overhead highway that covered the Cheonggyecheon stream and created a lively natural inner-city setting that flows seven miles with exercise stations, trees, shrubs, water and birds.

When Karen walked on the trail, she escaped from the intense urban city. She said, “It was beautiful, peaceful, pristine.” She talked with a visiting Chinese grandmother who took many photographs of Karen as this diminutive white-haired American who was sharing the same outdoor experience.

National Geographic reports that South Korea has obeyed one of its ancient proverbs: “Body and soil are one.” That’s right, body and soil are one.

It’s preserved three natural settings as Healing Forests. Health rangers guide firefighters recovering from post-traumatic stress disorder through yoga, massages and activities in the forests. Samsung and other businesses want these forests for employees who are “urban refugees.” Samsung was dismayed by surveys which showed 70 percent of their employees in urban areas were burdened by depression from the long hours of work and commuting.

South Korea’s commitment is gigantic with plans for 34 healing forests near every major urban center by next year, plus a $100 million healing complex. Five hundred new healing rangers are to be hired, many from a university that offers a degree in forest healing. National Geographic says the training services include, “prenatal forest meditation to woodcrafts for cancer patients to forest burials, and even a happy train that takes kids who’ve been bullied into the woods for 10 days of camping.”

A Korean Forest Agency supervisor said, “Of course, we still use forests for timber, but I think the health area is the fruit of the forest right now.”

It’s formally studying and gathering those fruits in the flora, such as oils from trees that relieve stress and asthma conditions. Their studies show forest healing reduces medical costs and benefits communities. Visitors to the forests have increased by 33 percent since 2010.

National Geographic reports on the revolution linking forests to medical benefits. Japan and Finland are expanding their natural parks. Cognitive science and epidemiological studies show natural environments build better communities.

Our region is blessed with spectacular opportunities along our rivers, foothills and community parks. Let’s continue to support them and expand them.

And most importantly for us as individuals, let’s get out into our forests more often to realize they are far more valuable than just a recreational treasure. They are life-giving for us.

Get out and get healthier.