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Into the woods: Does nature nurture healing?

The Green Road nature site is tucked away on bustling Naval Support Activity Bethesda, Maryland. (Photo courtesy of Uniformed Services University) The Green Road nature site is tucked away on bustling Naval Support Activity Bethesda, Maryland. (Photo courtesy of Uniformed Services University)

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Anne Frank wrote in her diary that nature provides “solace in all troubles.” Poet Lord Byron waxed about “a pleasure in the pathless woods.” President Calvin Coolidge said, “There is healing in the trees for tired minds and overburdened spirits. ... nature is your great restorer.”

Does nature really have healing powers? The Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences’ Consortium for Health and Military Performance (CHAMP) is leading a team of researchers tackling this question. Their laboratory is the Green Road, a nature site tucked away on bustling Naval Support Activity Bethesda, Maryland. The base is home to the health sciences university as well as Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

“I’ve always relieved my stress by going outside to be in nature,” said Patricia Deuster, the CHAMP director who’s also a nationally ranked marathoner, skydiver, and former tennis pro. Deuster is lead investigator of the Green Road research team, which also includes the National Institutes of Health, the University of Arizona, and Massachusetts General Hospital.

The project is the brainchild of Dr. Frederick Foote, a retired Navy neurologist and former adjunct professor at the health sciences university. He put together a team to apply for funding from a nonprofit organization to study the healing effects of nature in populations that may be vulnerable to behavioral health issues. Studies have suggested traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder are risk factors for suicide in Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans.

“The goals of the Green Road project are to provide empirical evidence for the healing power of nature in wounded warriors and their caregivers,” Foote said. “We also hope to inspire health care and policy leaders to incorporate green healing spaces throughout the Military Health System and civilian health care systems.”

More than 100 projects nationwide applied for the grants in 2013. The Green Road was one of six that received funding. Then, work to create the space began. An existing exercise path at Walter Reed Bethesda was expanded and widened, and 2 acres in the woods were cleared and redesigned to retain natural woodlands while including walking paths, landscaping, commemorative and communal spaces, and bridges that traverse a creek.

The total cost of the project was about $2 million, Foote said, adding that no public funds were used.

“It’s an absolutely extraordinary environment,” Deuster said, “and just a beautiful, beautiful place.”

The Green Road was dedicated as a research site in September 2016, but Deuster and her team are awaiting final construction approvals before research begins. They’re recruiting 50 to 60 participants who will complete questionnaires and baseline physiological evaluations before receiving heart rate monitors and navigation systems.

The study participants will take two walks: one out the back door of Building 53 directly onto a path leading to the Green Road site, and one out the front door and around the traffic-heavy, noisy campus. Their physiological responses to both environments will be evaluated to produce quantitative data, or statistics. They’ll also be interviewed about emotions and feelings they experienced during the two walks, to generate qualitative data.

Deuster said the research will take about a year to complete.

“I spend time in nature every day,” she said. “I know how healing it is for me, how it makes me relax and forget about all the stressful stuff. It will be interesting to see whether the quantitative data support the qualitative, that being in nature can have a tremendous impact on health and well-being.”

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