MOV Parent: Get outside and take your kids with you

Did you know that West Virginia ranks as the third most forested state? Percentage-wise, only Maine and New Hampshire rank higher. West Virginia is 78 percent forest. I bring this up because I want to encourage readers to get out there and appreciate this natural resource. Research on mental health increasingly indicates that getting in touch with nature is good for the mind and soul. Someone recently told me that when she was a kid she was hiking with her aunt at Dolly Sods, and this aunt freaked out in the wilderness and ran back to the car, leaving the niece to fend for herself. While getting into nature can be anxiety provoking for some, it has a soothing and centering effect on most people.

“Greenspace” is the term often used to describe maintained or unmaintained environmental areas for public use. Greenspace includes nature preserves like McDonough Park, wilderness environments such as Wayne National Forest, and parks like City Park or Mountwood Park. North Bend Rails to Trails is also an important greenspace that is available nearby. Public health studies have shown that the more access city dwellers have to greenspace, the less anxiety and mood disorder symptoms they experience. National Geographic has highlighted several studies indicating the positive effects of being in nature on well-being. For instance, spending several hours in a nature area decreases stress and increases measures of creativity. A study found on nature.com states that spending 120 minutes a week in greenspaces is associated with better health and well-being.

While we may be surrounded by greenspace, its obvious we don’t take advantage of it nearly enough. We have an epidemic of obesity, depression and addiction in our state. Yet at the same time we have a proven treatment that is free for the taking. Addiction research has found that increased exposure to greenspaces is associated with reduction in drug and alcohol cravings. Mental health goes up when people get outside and away from their screens. This is ever more important during the pandemic, as we’ve had to be on screens so much more for work and school.

Just in the last few years, Japan has seemingly rediscovered the benefits of leaving the city to engage in what they call “forest bathing” or shinrin-yoku. This Japanese phenomenon is catching on with city-dwellers worldwide and they are finding that turning off electronics, tuning in to their five senses and dropping in to greenspaces is lowering cortisol and blood pressure and boosting their immune systems. People in New York City are paying hundreds of dollars to have “forest therapists” take them on walks in the woods! I think most West Virginians would find that idea comical. But ask yourself this; when’s the last time you and your family turned off, tuned in and dropped into nature?

Patrick Ward is a marriage and family therapist. Contact him at pward@patrickwardphd.com.


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