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Nature's benefits: ParkRx offers mental health services outdoors

Fergus Falls Daily Journal - 8/2/2022

Aug. 2—Minnesota created its first state park (Itasca) in 1891. With nearly 70 state parks and six national parks today, Minnesota is home to some of the nation's best settings for residents to enjoy the outdoors.

Nature has been observed to have positive impacts on overall public health, and large amounts of research buttressing these findings have resulted in statewide initiatives focused on providing health professionals and their patients access to nature and its healing properties.

ParkRx is an organization that was established in 2013, in response to the growing trend of health practitioners prescribing nature to improve the mental and physical health of patients; the Minnesota DNR has fully embraced program with all of the state's state parks currently included in the initiative along with approximately 175 regional and local parks.

Jeff Wiersma is the manager of Glendalough State Park near Battle Lake and speaks to the uptick in park visits in past few years sharing that the park has seen attendance go from about 86,000 visitors per year to around 127,000 post-pandemic. " We're a little below that this year, it's settling down. But it's much higher than it was."

"For a while there, if you wanted a new bike, kayak or any other sort of outdoor gear, you'd have to order it six months ahead of time," Wiersma says. "There's just a massive resurgence of outdoor recreation. It certainly is very important for people's mental health to get outdoors and connect with nature, as well as the physical advantages that come along with hiking, biking and all the other activities available through the park."

Shinrin-yoku is Japanese term describing the practice of forest bathing, a method of immersing oneself in nature to gain considerable health benefits. Findings resulting from research into forest bathing exercises have shown reductions in stress levels, improved sleep durations, improvement of overall mood and enhanced immune responses among individuals partaking in the practice.

Joan Vorderbruggen of Battle Lake is an architect and former university professor who underwent the necessary qualifications to become a certified nature and forest therapy guide.

Vorderbruggen's focus on creating healing environments through her work led her to guiding others through the forest bathing sessions she now offers to area residents and whoever is interested in the unique discipline and the myriad of benefits it offers.

"I'm really interested in healing spaces," Vorderbruggen explains. "Everything kept connecting to nature."

In 2017, Vorderbruggen travelled to California and began her training through the programs offered through the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy.

"I went out to California for a week and did a really immersive training session," Vorderbruggen continues. "We lived outside and had outdoor training every day from dusk until dawn and continued on to a six-month practicum after that."

Vorderbruggen explains that part of the ParkRx effort is to get people certified through a more rigorous program, continuing to explain that if a doctor writes a prescription there's a recognized level of competence.

Vorderbruggen speaks to the importance of disconnecting from the technological tethers so many people today find themselves entangled within: "It's always about letting go of your thoughts and your mind and disconnecting from your phone — just really becoming present and aware of you senses and sense of place of where you're at."

Vorderbruggen shares that she has seen transformations with people, "it's amazing." She explains that they have been trained in a series of what are called invitations — they give invitations to people to follow that are designed to help ground people and bring them deeper into their connection with nature. "We try to engage all of the senses."

More information about current ParkRx programs and forest bathing can be found at the following:,


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