This morning’s edition of The New York Times featured a new $4000 treadmill that will be released later this month from Peloton, the company famous for bringing the world it’s “internet-connected, brushed-steel spin bicycle equipped with a 20-inch touch-screen.” That is at least three too many hyphenated words than should be needed to describe any product, but if you are trying to get people to shell out two grand for a bike that doesn’t move, you better have some whiz-bang selling points.
Peloton’s offerings feature tie-ins to live classes taking place in their brick-and-mortar spin boutique in Chelsea (still more hyphens), as well as options to ride with professional cyclists through scenic landscapes around the world. Virtually, of course. I’m sure the weather will be lovely in the Dolemites whenever you log on – nothing like the snowstorm that Andy Hampsten endured to become the first American to win the Giro D’Italia, and nothing like the cold, damp rides that most professionals do throughout most of the year to sustain their fitness. But if I can ride in the comfort of my home and get the same level of fitness, why not do it? No wind, no flat tires, no cars? Sign me up.
But most cyclists don’t ride just for fitness. We don’t walk, run, or work out just to get stronger, either. Studies show that exercise of any type promotes both our physical and intellectual wellbeing, but as psychologists are learning, outdoor exercise bolsters our emotional wellness in ways that indoor exercise does not. One recent study reported a significant reduction in the anxiety levels of those who engaged in “green exercise” activities that included road and mountain biking, and other studies indicate that even just visiting natural environments in urban settings (i.e., parks) can reduce stress.
Many of us who call this area home do so because of its natural beauty and charm — an aesthetic that has long made it the subject of landscape painters. But psychologists and therapists in the area are beginning to tap into the healing potential of our surroundings. Eric Krawcyzk, a counselor in South Lee, is a certified forest therapy guide who recommends “Vitamin N” for just about all of us who are so divorced from nature in our everyday lives. Krawcyzk’s background is in Wilderness Therapy, which he explored after his experience with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), where groups enter wilderness areas to develop technical outdoor and leadership skills.
Krawcyzk now brings groups into the outdoors for therapeutic healing, and I joined him on a windy January morning for one of his “Hikes with Healers,” a monthly gathering of interested participants with a guest hike leader who connects attendees to the environment or activity. We gathered around a table at the Notchview Nordic Ski Center in Windsor, Massachusetts for a brief group meeting and introduction to Dr. David Martin, a chiropractor from Pittsfield with a background in downhill and nordic ski instruction, which would come in handy as he led our group on the day’s activity: a cross-country ski along the groomed Notchview trail network.
There are therapeutic techniques that are explicitly designed to connect individuals to their natural surroundings, but the first step is to get participants to feel comfortable and safe in the outdoors. On this day, Krawcyzk and Martin allayed concerns about the frigid temperatures with a brief discussion on how to dress for cold weather and assurances of safety by way of their training as physicians and wilderness first responders. For Krawzcyzk’s patients — many of whom are adolescent males — traditional therapy is similarly intimidating or fraught, and this slow entry into treatment feels less forced, less clinical. Much of our time on this outing would be spent simply getting acquainted with the phenomenon of exercising in sub-zero temperatures, an experience that demands connection to weather, trail conditions, surroundings, and the aches and pains that accompany any kind of exercise.
I stepped to the trailhead with my skis under arm and blowing a bit in a steady wind out of the west. I had ridden my bike through this area a few years ago, and I concluded that strong winds must be a feature of this spot, located in the Hoosac Range, a southern extension of Vermont’s Green Mountains. I immediately adjusted my sunglasses to account for the brilliant sun, and zipped up my shell to retain some warmth from the cabin before we started moving.
The group ranged from beginners to more advanced skiers, and Dr. Martin provided pointers to everyone while Krawcyzk encouraged and supported the novice skiers. After a brief skills assessment, I broke off with another experienced skier to explore the trails on our own, and while our trip didn’t involve any overtly therapeutic practices, the novelty of skiing with someone in an unfamiliar setting allowed for many of the same benefits. My partner knew the property better than me, so I mostly allowed him to be my guide while I soaked up the Vitamin N from the red spruces that line the trails. A full sixteen kilometers of the paths are above 2000’ in elevation and therefore more frequently skiable than other areas in the Berkshires. For the better part of two hours, I honed my form, thanks to Dr. Martin’s pointers, and beamed at the dozens of other skiers who beamed back at me while enjoying perfect mid-winter trail conditions. I was…happy!
More advanced nature therapy can involve practices adapted from the Japanese concept of Shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing.” Forest bathing differs from simply skiing, walking, or hiking in its mindfulness practices that encourage participants to bond with their natural surroundings. Individuals are invited into nature by, for instance, isolating each of their senses: inhaling the loamy scent of a spring forest, listening intently to each sound at the margins of a meadow, examining the work of an ant. These exercises establish a direct line of communication with our surroundings by eliminating the stressors and distractions that drag us recursively into our heads.
This is not communing with chipmunks: scientific studies in Japan and have documented the physiological benefits of shinrin-yoku. One study of the practice in 24 forests around the island found decreases in heart rate, blood pressure, and concentrations of stress hormones among participants, and another study found an increase in immune function after longer forest outings. In fact, “in Japan, Shinrin-yoku trails are certified by a blood-sampling study to determine whether the natural killer cell count is raised enough for the trail to qualify,” says Ben Page, a certified forest therapy guide and founder of Shinrin-yoku Los Angeles.
Krawcyzk is an evangelist for nature’s healing powers, and in addition to organizing Hikes with Healers, he is working with a group of like-minded practitioners throughout the Berkshires to promote its benefits. Some insurance plans are now reimbursing patients for this kind of therapy, and doctors are beginning to prescribe time in nature as a part of an overall treatment regimen. Krawcyzk aims to bring patients out for at least forty-five minutes, once a week for twelve weeks, but he also attempts to create groups of patients for outings of two or three hours.
Additionally, he is working with local land managers and the Berkshire Natural Resources Council to develop an interactive map of trails that could be used for nature therapy. Locations for forest bathing abound: they need not be large or groomed for a particular kind of outdoor activity, but they must offer opportunities for us to absorb nature’s healing power. The woods behind your house might do, especially when leaves and seasonal growth muffle the intrusion of man-made noise. For those looking to try nature therapy, resorts such as Kripalu and Canyon Ranch offer introductions to the practices, and Naturetreatment.org provides contact information for trained practitioners in our area. More of a DIY-er? Sign up for their free “Starter Kit” that includes ten “invitations” to get you started on your own schedule.
As Krawcyzk explains, however, the experience is like a massage; “you can do it yourself, but it’s better when done by someone else.” A guide allows you to absorb the surroundings without concern for direction, time, or other outside distractions. My experience on skis affirmed that belief, but it provided another benefit: community. I lost myself as much in companionship and conversation with my skiing partner as I did with my surroundings, and our mutual appreciation of the outdoors led us to exchange email addresses and later trade information about outdoor events we discussed on the outing. A certain irony, I suppose, that setting out to connect with nature helped me to connect more closely with my fellow man.