By Michele S. Byers
The coronavirus has thrown our lives into pandemonium. Schools and workplaces are closed and you can’t even go to health clubs, restaurants or bars.
Stress levels can hit the roof as we worry about our families, hunker down at home and isolate ourselves with “social distancing.” Some of us are trying to work and attend classes remotely, while others are suddenly without work. How can we cope when life is anything but normal?
How about taking a walk outdoors in nature? Nature is still open and it may be our best medicine. Move your muscles, breath fresh air and soak up sunshine.
A walk in a nature preserve or a park can soothe anxiety and help you relax and strengthen your body and spirit. The sound of birds, the sight of a spring flower in bloom or the smell of a pine forest can lift spirits immeasurably.
Where can you go? New Jersey has hundreds of great places to walk in nature – from state parks and forests, to national wildlife refuges and recreation areas, to local and county parks, to nature preserves run by nonprofit organizations.
Our open spaces are open and mostly uncrowded – although they seem to be already experiencing a spike in popularity.
The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has announced that state parks, forests, recreation areas, wildlife management areas and historic areas will remain open to the public for passive recreation, and entry fees are waived.
“Keeping state-owned open spaces available to the public is important so people can continue to enjoy the healthful benefits of recreation and being outdoors,” said DEP Commissioner Catherine McCabe. “We advise the public to practice social distancing while enjoying our open spaces.”
Science solidly supports this advice. Numerous studies have found that nature and exercise are a powerful combination in promoting physical and mental health.
Two studies on green spaces and health were conducted a few years ago by researcher Gregory Bratman. The first study found that volunteers who strolled through a quiet, leafy area were happier and more attentive than those who walked for the same length of time near a loud, busy highway.
The second study was even more interesting, examining what walking in a natural setting does to our tendency to worry – as many folks are doing right now. The study showed that a 90-minute walk in nature can lower anxiety and decrease “morbid rumination.” The same length walk without nature had no beneficial impact.
In this time of stress and uncertainty, let nature help you reduce anxiety, boost your health and protect your peace of mind. If you want to increase your benefits even more, walk with a friend.
It is critical, however, to follow social distancing guidelines and make sure you keep 6 feet apart and avoid all contact with each other. You can still talk easily as you walk and you will get the benefits of friendship, too!
As author and conservationist Rachel Carson wrote, “Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.”
Explore the New Jersey Conservation Foundation’s 17 nature preserves by going to www.njconservation.org/find-nature/
To find a trail near you, visit the New York New Jersey Trail Conference website at www.nynjtc.org, the New Jersey Trails website at www.njtrails.org or the New Jersey Hiking website at www.njhiking.com
For a list of state parks, forests and recreation areas, go to www.state.nj.us/dep/parksandforests/parks/parkindex.html
One caveat: facilities like restrooms and visitor centers are closed in an effort to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
Michele S. Byers is the executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Far Hills. She may be reached at email@example.com