Five Ways Nature Can Be the Best Medicine

January 10, 2019

Despite an unattractive spring through the airport, I arrive at the gate for my connecting flight too late. The next flight isn’t until the next day, so I now have a day and a night in Vancouver. Nothing against Vancouver, but I’m not happy about the unplanned time here. Also I’ve got a headache. I’m stressed and sad my vacation is now cut short by a day. Until I find Stanley Park.

Vancouver’s 1,001-acre Stanley Park is one of the largest urban parks in North America. It’s adjacent to downtown and almost entirely surrounded by water. Within its borders are ever-blooming gardens, about 500,000 cedar, fir and hemlock trees, a 5.5-mile paved seaside pathway (the Seawall), over 40 miles of dirt trails through the park’s interior and a collection of First Nation totem poles, among other things. The more I wander around Stanley Park, the more I wish I had longer to explore. Kiosks rent bikes. There are horse- drawn carriage rides and a shuttle trolley. Joggers and rollerbladers crowd the Seawall. The views of the city, craggy mountains rising verdantly behind, from the Seawall are spectacular, but evidently the park’s best views are from the Brockton Point Lighthouse, which I pass over in favor of the totem pole collection.

The longer I’m in the park, the more I relax. By the time I’m back at my hotel for the night, after a couple of hours wandering the woods, I’m not longer sad, and also no longer have a headache. Both history—going back to early Chinese medicine and Roman doctors—and recent scientific studies show I’m not imagining that my time in the outdoors has helped my mood. Spending time in nature can reduce psychological stress, depressive symptoms and hostility, while at the same time improving cognitive function and sleep. (A book that touches on both the historical use of time outside as a therapy and also on recent studies is Your Brain on Nature, by Eva M. Selhub, MD and Alan C. Logan, ND. It is amazingly informative without being the least bit dull.)

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It turns out the beauty of travel is more than meets the eye. It goes all the way to your brain, if you take the time to plan an outdoor activity or two. (The science shows it doesn’t matter what you do outside; it’s the being outside that counts.)

Free Rx: Trees and plants secrete chemicals called phytoncides that impact our cognition, mental state and immune systems in ways science is only beginning to understand: Experimental studies have shown that phytoncides can lower the production of stress hormones, reduce anxiety and increase pain threshold; higher phytoncides cause increased production of anticancer proteins in the blood.

Park City, Utah: Ski (And Shoot) with Olympic Spirit

Park City has succeeded where many Olympic host cities have failed: It has kept the venues constructed for its Games alive and open. Here you can go bobsledding and watch ski jumpers train. The area’s Olympic spirit is most alive at Soldier Hollow, the site of the 2002 Games’ cross-country skiing and biathlon events. Today you can ski on the same 20 miles of skating and classic trails Olympians trained and raced on. Since one of the state’s best Nordic ski schools is here too, it doesn’t matter if your experience level is decidedly non-Olympian. Private skate and classic lessons are available daily, and there are scheduled group lessons for classic skiing every weekday. Group lessons are Saturdays and Sundays.

Soldier Hollow is also one of the few places int he U.S. you can give biathlon a try. A mysterious sport, for Americans, at least, because we so rarely see it, biathlon is a combination of Nordic skiing and target shooting. Soldier Hollow’s programs range from one-hour “Bronze Level” introductory shooting class (no skiing and you shoot from 10 meters) to a two-hour “Gold Level” experience, which includes ski gear and shooting .22 Olympic rifles on the Olympic range. (The shooting only happens after you’ve taken a safety clinic, also included in the program.)

Stress Test: Think you don’t have stress? It’s all relative. In a 151-country Gallup World Poll, Americans’ stress levels ranked fifth- highest.

Nevis: The Ultimate Locavore

Diving at the Four Seasons Nevis does double duty. The resort has teamed up with the Caribbean island’s original SCUBA outfit to help you hunt your own dinner. Have you ever lassoed a lobster? Their kitchen then turns your catch into a gourmet fireside feast on the beach. Generations of Nevisian divers have harvested Caribbean Spiny Lobsters—some up to five pounds—just one mile out from the Four Seasons’ beach. Your dive starts on the dive boat’s deck with a lesson on how to properly lasso a lobster—slide the specialized lasso around its tail from behind and then cinch it. After a few practice lassos, you strap on your diving gear, drop off the boat’s side and head down. You’ll see colorful corals, feather dusters and possibly even stingrays, but the dive master and resort chef have their eyes peeled for lobster. If you can’t lasso a lobster because they’re too fast—the latter might have been the case when I was on the hunt—the staff are professional backup.

Once back on land with lobsters in hand, you turn your catch over to the kitchen, where it disappears until lunch- or dinnertime. When it’s time to eat, head to the beach, where you’ll enjoy drinks and hors d’oeuvres while either lounging in front of a driftwood fire or watching the chefs work their magic in an open-air gourmet kitchen. When the chefs are done, take your custom, all-lobster menu— each course paired with a wine, of course— into a private beach cabana and savor your successes. Lobster sashimi, anyone?

Smart Walks: At least one study has shown that a nature hike elevates the neurosteroid DHEA, which declines with aging and whose administration has been shown to improve cognitive functioning in adults. An urban walk of the same duration did not have this effect on DHEA.

Bali: Serenity by the Bay

Sunrise or sunset? In your private villa courtyard with birds singing overhead, the beach pavilion with a background soundtrack of Jimbaran Bay’s crashing waves or under palm trees on the expansive, frangipani-scented lawn facing the beach? Such are the difficult choices when arranging for yoga, tai chi or guided meditation at Belmond Jimbaran Puri, on Bali’s southern tip. “Having a deep connection with nature can enhance your practice, increase wakeful relaxation and internal focus,” says Ida Ayu Citra, a yogi at the island’s Surya Candra Bhuana studio and school who has been doing private sessions at Belmont for more than five years. “You can feel limitless and open as you look up to the sky, or out at the ocean—your breath will be bigger.” Sessions are 30 or 60 minutes and can be modified for all levels of practice and experience. “Sixty minutes is best,” Citra says. “More time to establish a deep connection with the earth, sky and ocean.” Yogis typically do Ashtanga and Hatha yoga, with some Balinese modifications. If you don’t feel like anything physical, there’s also the option of claiming a teak chaise lounge under the palm trees at the resort’s infinity pool.

Mellow Out: Stress is one of the biggest factors of mental fatigue, yet spending time in nature has been shown to lower the stress hormone cortisol. It follows then that since nature can help you avert mental fatigue, time spent outside could improve cognitive health.

Napa Valley: Biking with Benefits

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You’d think wine country would be a place of rest. Maybe even som overindulgence. Then there’s Napa Valley, where rest and overindulgence are certainly allowed and encouraged, and where there’s also a winery founded and run by the Clifs, the same family behind the popular sports performance food brand Clif. The winery, Clif Family Winery just south of downtown St. Helena, welcomes everyone, but it is cyclists who flock there. Its tasting room is called Velo Vino and there, alongside wine and espresso, are branded bike shorts, jerseys and bottles. Staff can give recommendations for rides throughout the valley. Most of the people in the line at its food truck, Bruschetteria, sport spandex and bike shoes. “I know riders plan their route so that they hit the food truck when they’ve got about a quarter of their ride left,” says Thatcher Greene, a Calistoga Bikeshop rep who was born and raised in the valley. “They stop for some tasty bruschetta and a rest and then finish up.”

“The road riding here is world-class because you can be very selective with what kind of ride you want to do and there is so much scenery to see,” Greene says. “You can go out for a flat, mellow cruiser ride, or a 100-mile ride with climbs that have 20 percent grades. Add the great food and wine and amenities that come with being in a wine destination and you’ve got a five-star package.”

For a “mellow ride through pretty scenery on the most excellent shoulders in the valley” Green recommends Silverado Trail. This road is home to dozens of wineries. Ride as long as you want—stopping at as many wineries as you want—and then turn around. “You can hop on this road anywhere in the valley,” he says.

Cyclists looking for a challenge should check in at Clif Family Winery or the Calistoga Bikeshop for details on riding the Oakville Grade to Dry Creek or Howell Mountain to Pope Valley. Both of these are loops with “good, solid climbs off the valley floor,” says Greene. Thankfully the 1,500-foot climb up Howell is slightly blunted by the scenery—the mountain is terraced with vineyards; grapes from Howell vines go into some of Napa’s best wines, including several of the Spire Collection’s seven Napa wineries. I love wine and cycling equally, but the high- speed, twisty descent through pine forest off the backside of Howell Mountain down into Pope Valley excited me more than any wine I’ve ever had, including the 2010 Dancing Hares cabernet blend (95 points from Wine Advocate) I enjoyed at the Michelin-starred Solbar at Solage Calistoga the evening after my ride.