Nature for Health and Wellness – What is the Evidence?

Mizzou Botanic Garden’s 2022 Jacquelyn K. Jones Lecture is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. on September 15 in Monsanto Auditorium in MU’s Bond Life Sciences Center. Dr. Kathleen Wolf, a research social scientist at the University of Washington’s (UW) College of the Environment, will be the guest speaker.


Wolf’s career focus has been the beneficial relationship between people and nature, including social behaviors and human health. She is especially interested in how these positive scientific findings can be integrated into local governments’ policy and planning for better quality of life.


Looking back at her career and reflecting on what influenced her interest in the topic of human response to outdoor spaces, Wolf was interested in science early on, even earning a science award in high school. And the other great influence was her family.


“My father was a landscape contractor, and an avid outdoorsperson — hiking, fishing, foraging,” Wolf said. “As a landscape contractor, he had a pickup full of yard tools that my brother and I used to work with older clients in their gardens. I observed their incredible pleasure. For them it was recreation, aesthetics and therapy.


“My mother enjoyed flowering plants,” Wolf continued. “In my own garden, I’ve planted things that flower in early spring and continue with a color range throughout the seasons. Gardening is one way that I decompress.”


Wolf earned a degree in biology at Whitman College in Washington state but was influenced by her liberal arts education. Looking back, she has realized her career is an effort to better understand the nexus of nature and culture. That interface has become clearer as time has gone by. Her early studies included philosophy, history and psychology.


After graduating, Wolf and her husband moved to Key West, Fla., where she was an urban forester. While there, she worked with garden clubs and became an expert on native plants.


“People were contacting me all of the time with horticulture questions, including landscape designers, another connection between nature and culture.”


That experience was the impetus to seek a master’s degree in landscape architecture at the University of Michigan (UM) where she connected with environmental psychologists Rachel and Stephen Kaplan. The Kaplans were early and extremely influential researchers on the benefits inherent in human-nature connections.


Wolf said the Kaplan’s “very rigorous approach” to studying nature’s influence on human well-being influenced her decision to pursue a doctorate in landscape architecture at UM.


“Where I may differ from a lot of researchers is a focus on real-world applications. That’s been my background,” Wolf said of her research. “I’m looking at the more practical side of things. But I also have a personal tendency to have a broad, integrated look.”


Wolf said when she started out, there was very little funding in urban forestry research, which has changed over time. “Now some of the brightest and best students are coming to this. There is substantial theory and evidence, so NIH, NSF and the Centers for Disease Control are doing funding.”


Wolf’s research at UW was “at the vanguard of ideas” setting out the array of health benefits provided by time spent interacting with nature. Funding from the U.S. Forest Service supported the construction of a website documenting the research: Green Cities: Good Health. “For people just entering the field, this is a good resource,” she said.


“I am now at about 5,000 articles,” said Wolf, who continues to monitor the nature and health research. “Some of the best research ties nature experiences to mental health and wellness. Benefits of nature experience can be seen in things like clinical depression, ADHD and dementia.


“The research findings are incredibly wide ranging. For example, research on forest bathing shows increases in natural killer (NK) cells, which are elements of the immune system.


“NK cells may be activated by phytoncides,” Wolf said. Phytoncides are airborne chemical compounds emitted by trees to protect themselves from bacterial, fungal and insect threats. “The theory is that people breathe in phytoncides and their immune systems are boosted.”


Wolf said that the wealth of evidence about nature and health shows that nature experiences provide benefits for people at all stages of humans’ lives, from cradle to grave.


“Nature provides pathways to improving health,” she said. “Pregnant women with access to nature have babies with better birth weight. Adults who engage with nature are better able to focus on tasks and may be more creative. And there is real value to the elderly.”


In August 2022, just prior to her visit to MU, Wolf traveled to Peru to do research as a member of a diverse team. The group has been doing a One Health evaluation of the community health and biodiversity of slum communities.


In addition to Wolf’s Thursday night lecture on the various ways trees provide profoundly important services to all who live near them, Mizzou Botanic Garden will hold a forest bathing event on Friday beginning at 9 a.m. The morning will start with a discussion between Wolf and those who attend about their own life experiences with nature. and then break into smaller forest bathing groups led by Wolf, Anand Chockalingam, M.D., Professor, MU Division of Cardiovascular Medicine, and Sonja A. Wilhelm Stanis, Professor, MU School of Natural Resources.


Participants will meet at the Hinkson Creek Recreation Area off Mick Deaver Drive south of Mizzou Arena. Watch for signs.