Erica Timko Olson loves to be outside enjoying the natural world. She grew up on a Minnesota farm with her three siblings. They spent most of their time outdoors. While some of her outdoor time was used for farm chores, most was spent having fun in the outdoors. Timko Olson could not get enough.
span style=”font weight: 400 ;”>” I don’t recall my parents ever telling me to go outside.” she said. She believes that being outside kept her physically and mentally healthy.
Timko Olson worked hard to pass her love for nature on to her six children. It is a healthy habit that has only positive side effects. “We find that people who spend more time in nature have less confusion, greater clarity, and a better sense of self. It lowers blood pressure and reduces stress hormones. These are all great .”
As a clinical assistant, she is a professor at the University of Minnesota School of Nursing and Earl E. Bakken Centre for Spirituality and Health A. Timko Olson, Marilyn Sime research fellow has made it her mission to help people appreciate the healing power of nature. Her academic research has been focused on the impact of nature and forest therapy on college students’ psychosocial well-being and young adult cancer survivors.
Timko Olson briefly stepped in to tell me about her research and the relationship between them last week.
her mental health and the amount of time she spends outside each day.
MinnPost: Tell us more about your research on the therapeutic effects of nature on young people.
Erica Timko Olsonspan styling=”font-weight 400 ;”>: When I was teaching undergraduate nursing programs, I saw many college students who were stressed and very vulnerable. At the time, my focus was on nursing students and anxiety, resilience, and spirituality. I thought, “What can you do to help these students?” Is there an intervention that is affordable, easy to implement and can make a huge impact on students’ mental health?
This got me thinking about the lessons I could take from my own experience. My childhood was dominated by nature. My grandfather used maple sap to make syrup. I can still remember helping him. It was meaningful even at a young age.
My upbringing was centered around the outdoors. It was good for my mental well-being. My siblings and I spent every day outside, summer, autumn, and winter. Our dad would farm for hours and we kids would spend hours outdoors. In the summer, I can remember taking a picnic and walking outside. We would not return home until we had eaten dinner. It was what we all loved.
My physical and mental health was greatly affected by my close relationship to nature. I felt it was necessary to share this with the nursing students in these programs. This is what my early work was about.
MinnPost: How do you incorporate your interest in nature’s healing power into your current research?
ETO: I’m finishing up a study in which I interview a group young adults who’ve had cancer. I am assessing their psychological and physical needs. Their providers usually take care of their physical needs, but they often neglect their other needs. It can be quite difficult, I am finding. It is often not addressed. My research focuses on understanding how my participants spend their time in nature and the impact it has on their overall well being.
MinnPost: What are you measuring?
ETO: I gather background information about my participants’ health, mental health and social needs. I ask them specific questions about their relationships with nature. For example, “What did nature mean to you before you were diagnosed?” “What has your relationship with nature been through cancer treatment?”
Next, I ask my follow-up questions. These are very specific to my intervention study. I ask my interviewees, “If your doctor had given you a prescription to go out in the woods three times per week for 20 minutes, would that have been possible?” I ask them if they would prefer to have a solitary experience in the natural world, or if they preferred walking a short distance in nature.
I am trying to gauge their comfort with the natural world.
MP: I’m sure you have been interested in working alongside vulnerable populations all your life. Do you have a particular reason for choosing to study young cancer patients?
ETO: This is a full circle for me. My oldest brother, who was only 13 months old, was diagnosed with cancer. He died quickly. I have wondered for years what I could do to help my brother and what my purpose in this. It was almost 20 years ago that I forgot about it. But, it became the catalyst for my research and my motivation to support young adults with cancer.
While there is much attention given to older adults and children with cancer, young people with cancer are often in the middle. They can sometimes get lost. Many people with cancer live a long and difficult life, even if they are in remission. My research has led me to look for ways to support them in this process. I want them to feel grounded and connected, and to have a positive interaction with nature.
MP: What is the definition of interaction with nature?
ETO: Nature therapy can be used for so many purposes. It’s broad. It could include gardening. You could also stargaze. You could also be kayaking, or on a boat in water. You could also go forest bathing with or without a guide.
Right now, I am designing a study with a guided forest bathing component. However, I will also be monitoring participants’ nature doses and keeping track of their locations via an app. I will not only be studying the forest-bathing experience, but also their daily time in nature and its quality.
MinnPost – What do you know about the effects of nature on young adults with cancer?
ETO: It can be difficult to keep in touch with yourself after and during cancer treatment. You can build a strong connection with nature. Cortisol levels are reduced when you spend time in nature. This can make our bodies healthier and have positive effects on our mental health. This is the purpose of this type of work. Regular interactions with nature may help cancer patients reduce their chance of developing secondary psychological distress symptoms. This is what my study aims to prove.
These kinds of results have been observed in healthy populations that don’t suffer from chronic diseases. Positive results have also been seen in other populations. COVID was a study in which I participated. We gave depression patients a “nature prescription,” which is a reminder from the provider to get outside. People who received a nature prescription showed fewer symptoms of depression than those who were simply encouraged to spend more time in the outdoors.
MP: How does your belief that the natural world has a healing power impact the way you raise your children?
ETO: My children spend a lot time outdoors. Sometimes, I just tell them to get outside and “get lost.”
Growing up, I was a helper to my mom canning and freezing many things. Also, making jams and jellies. This is what my husband and I do with our children. We make 50 quarts each year of apple sauce every fall. My children, aged 6-21, have a large garden. Everyone has a role in it. We grow huge sunflowers, berries, vegetables. We feed the birds. Since the time our children could hold a seed, they were planting seeds. We love gardening and flowers. It is how we live.
MP: Do you live in an area where the natural world is easily accessible?
ETO: Not always. My husband and I moved to Philadelphia when my children were young. We believed we would be there for 3 to 5 years. We found it difficult to move into a new city. We had lived in the country or in the suburbs for our entire lives. We felt disconnected from nature and the natural world in the city.
One day, I recall calling my dad to tell him that I felt anxious and disconnected. He asked me, “When was your last time you saw it?” I answered that he would be making it a habit to see the sun rise and fall every day. We took the children out to the city quite often. We took the kids to the beach. We felt it was important to be outside as often as possible. This was our way to find a healthy spot in the city.
MP: Do you still enjoy watching the sunset and sunrise now that you are back in Minnesota?
ETO: Yes, I do. My family does, too. A group text is called “Fam Jam” and almost every day someone sends a photo of the sunrise or sunset they took on their way to work, school, or home. My daughter is at Purdue, Indiana. She’s in the Eastern Time Zone so she gets an earlier sunrise or sunset. She usually beats us to it.
It is important to mark the beginning of each day. The passing of time is important, as well as the intention to be grateful. This is essential for everyone, particularly those with cancer or who are suffering from depression or anxiety. Each day feels significant because of these natural markers.
MinnPost: Did you know of any innovative interventions that can help people spend more time outdoors?
ETO: Dr. Robert Zarr, Unity Health Care in Washington D.C., created the PRA program, or Park RX. This program allows doctors to create prescriptions for patients to spend time outdoors. To make it official, regular citizens can write their own nature prescriptions and hand it in to their provider. Canada is trying to make this a routine thing. Because it has many positive outcomes, providers there are issuing nature prescribing orders. It works.
MinnPost: Why does a nature prescription need to be written? It’s enough to hear your doctor say “Go outside and enjoy nature ?””
ETO: You can have anxiety or depression. But if you have a prescription saying, “Take this pill at night, with a glass water,” then you will know how to make daily decisions. A nature prescription is the same thing. It might say, “Go outside to your local park and spend 20 mins walking or birdwatching” which takes the decision out of your hand. This might just be the encouragement someone needs.
MinnPost: There are times when people feel disconnected from nature. Some people live in areas that are physically disconnected to nature. How can you encourage someone like this to spend more time outdoors?
ETO: It is difficult to spend time outdoors in a busy world. COVID helped me to see that we don’t need to be tied to work and that we have the right to spend more time outdoors. It’s impossible to go back to the way it was before.
Many people know that being outside makes them feel happier. Minnesotans want to get outside in the summer. Being outdoors makes us feel happier all around. More people are looking for ways to make nature more accessible for all.
MinnPost: What can you do?
ETO: Recognizing where nature is is an important part of this. It’s easier to access nature if you live in the country. However, there are other places that are more accessible. When we lived in Philadelphia, we used to take our family to the beaches. I recently started working with NatureQuant. This website allows you to enter your address and find your “nature score,” which is the amount and quality natural elements found at each address. NatureDose is their app.
Chaska is where I live. My nature score is above 95 because I live in a park right next to my house. Nature is accessible to anyone, so it doesn’t need to be far. Even 20 minutes per day can make a difference in your health. It can help you lower your risk of developing diabetes and improve your blood pressure. It is so important.
MP: How long should someone spend outside to reap the maximum physical and mental health benefits?
ETO: A good indicator is to spend 120 minutes per week in nature. You can get maximum benefits by spending 200 to 300 minutes per week in nature. There is no limit. It’s all fine. Last week, I spent 1,400 minutes in the natural world.