February 23, 2020

Don't Underestimate the Power of a Little Fresh Air

“In the early 1940s, while embroiled in the Second World War, the government of Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King faced a PR problem back home: injured soldiers were being sent to a Toronto cash-register factory that had been hastily converted to house the wounded. Torch, a newspaper for veterans, heaped scorn on what it called the “chief orthopaedic military hospital in Canada.” It described “ramshackle, inflammable additions” and observed that the vets lacked adequate light or recreational areas. The Canadian government had asked the City of Toronto for land to erect a new facility. Milton Gregg, minister of veterans’ affairs, called for “rural surroundings (that) can have a beneficial effect upon morale.” In 1948, Mackenzie King opened Sunnybrook Hospital, then the largest hospital in Canada, on a forested plateau north of downtown. Sunnybrook’s principal architect, Hugh L. Allward, noted that “a clear-running stream adds charm to a broad valley available to patients and their friends.” The founders of Sunnybrook recognized something ancient and intuitive: the healing power of forests.

Seventy years on, a quest for bigger and better buildings (and more parking) has driven Sunnybrook’s patients and staff further and further from nature. But, even as Sunnybrook pushes green space to its margins, researchers elsewhere have proven the value of therapeutic landscapes. Clinical trials show that time spent in the forest can boost white blood cells, which can attack tumours, improve cardiovascular health, reduce stress, and lift depression. The Japanese call this shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing. In Canada, during a typical forest bath, participants stroll through groves and sometimes lean against trees. They feel rocks and smell soil. They lie down on carpets of pine needles. It sounds like a hippie fad—but it might also be a simple, low-cost way to address some of the challenges facing our health care system.

Although Western medicine has succeeded in limiting communicable diseases and extending life expectancy, increasing rates of depression and other mental illnesses suggest that, in the developed world, well-being is on the decline. In Canada, three in five people over twenty now live with chronic, noncommunicable diseases. As hospitals overflow and “hallway medicine” persists, contact with nature may be one of our oldest and least-appreciated treatments.”

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