Barton Health, Forest Service partner to treat patients with nature therapy

Claire Cudahy
Knee-replacement patient Carol Bennis participates in a wellness outing with Barton Health registered nurse Khristy Gavigan and a guide from the U.S. Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit.
Courtesy / Barton Health |

Two months after having her knee replaced, 75-year-old Carol Bennis strapped on snowshoes for the first time and went for a moonlight trek along the beach with 12 other recovering patients, Barton Health clinicians — including her surgeon — and Forest Service rangers.

The “wellness walk” is part of a new partnership between Barton Health and the U.S. Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit, which aims to harness the restorative benefits of spending time in nature.

“I was totally shocked that I could do it,” said Bennis. “The knee held up beautifully, and it left me inspired.”

Bennis’ orthopedic surgeon Dr. Stephen Bannar found that while ample public land for recreation surrounds Lake Tahoe, many of his patients were too nervous to go outside and incorporate physical activity into their recovery.

“How can we prescribe this as medicine? I’m a firm believer that there are a lot of benefits. It’s been depicted in literature and in artwork for hundreds of thousands of years,” said Bannar. “But now we have peer-reviewed studies, scientific proof, that time in nature will decrease your heart rate, decrease your blood pressure, decrease your cortisol levels, decrease your levels of depression, improve your creativity and decrease your risk of cancer.”

In 1982, inspired by ancient Shinto and Buddhist practices, the Japanese government coined the term shinrin-yoku, which roughly translates to “forest bathing.” The idea is that allowing nature to enter your body through all five senses can have a myriad of health benefits — and the data supports it. Between 2004 and 2012 the government invested nearly $4 million in forest-bathing research and established 48 official “forest therapy” trails with plans for dozens more.

Scientists have used field tests, hormone analysis and brain imaging to analyze the anecdotal reports of better moods and lower anxiety levels.

After studying hundreds of participants, researcher Yoshifumi Miyazaki of Chiba University in Tokyo found that forest walks lead to a 12.4 percent decrease in stress hormone cortisol levels, 7 percent decrease in sympathetic nerve activity, 1.4 percent decrease in blood pressure, and 5.8 percent decrease in heart rate, according to Outside Magazine.

Another Japanese study found significant increases in natural killer (NK) cells — which respond to viral-infected cells and tumor formation — in the immune system after time in nature.

Now, nature therapy is beginning to take off in the United States. The Association of Nature and Forest Therapy plans to train and certify 250 new forest therapy guides in 2018.

In Lake Tahoe, Barton Health and the Forest Service have plans to ramp up monthly community wellness outings in nature for patients and at risk youth, in addition to jointly working to increase accessibility for all skill-levels on public lands. The agencies also plan to provide ongoing medical and wellness training for Forest Service rangers and firefighters.

“Our idea was to unite health providers with public land managers to facilitate health benefits for those at-risk populations,” said Khristy Gavigan, a registered nurse and a driving force behind the program. “Partnering with the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit rangers provided that interpretive piece where they could support the logistics, help identify the appropriate outings, and deliver a message about the connection between community wellness and ecosystem health.”

The program has already received national recognition.

In June, Bannar, Gavigan, and Joseph Flower from the U.S. Forest Service, were asked to share their idea at RecX, a conference run by the U.S. Department of the Interior in Washington, DC.

“We need to change our mindset from treating disease to promoting wellness,” explained Bannar. “A prescription for nature can enable accessibility for at-risk groups as well as preventive medicine for other members of the community.”

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