BETHESDA, Md., May 26, 2017 — It’s long been said that being outside, experiencing the sights and sounds of nature, can help ease our ailments, but there has been no physiological evidence to prove this theory. Now, researchers at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences here are embarking on a collaborative study seeking to scientifically measure the healing effects of nature. Over the last few years, researchers from USU’s Consortium for Health and Military Performance, or CHAMP, have been working with architects and engineers as part of an effort known as the Green Road Project.

Measuring Nature’s Effects on Humans

These efforts have led to a Green Road site being built on the Naval Support Activity Bethesda — one of six nationwide — which will help scientifically measure the effects of nature, while providing a tranquil environment for service members and their families. The project is led by the Institute for Integrative Health, with funding by the TKF Foundation, and also includes collaboration with scientists from the University of Arizona at Tucson, the Massachusetts General Hospital and the National Institutes of Health.

The Green Road site includes a paved pathway that meanders through the wooded area behind USU, leading over to Sanctuary Hall — living quarters for Walter Reed patients and their caregivers during long-term care. Those who traverse the path can take a seat on a large bench covered by a wooden awning, from which they can enjoy a breathtaking view of the vast wooded area populated with tall trees, white-tailed deer, and the sounds of birds chirping — not to mention plenty of fresh air. There’s also a pavilion, complete with picnic tables, a babbling water fountain and a sitting area made out of large rocks right beside a small, trickling stream.

This year, USU researchers plan to begin using the site to measure the healing effects of those who spend time on the Green Road, as opposed to traversing through busier, less “green” parts of the base, explained Patricia Deuster, professor in USU’s Military and Emergency Medicine Department and director of CHAMP.

They’ll look to enroll service members from all branches, as well as wounded warriors and caregivers, and any others who can access the base and therefore the site. It’s important to look at each of these populations, Deuster said, to see how a healthy person responds to the different pathways, as compared to how a patient responds, or how a caregiver may respond.

Monitoring Heart Rates

Those enrolled in the study will begin in CHAMP’s lab, in Building 53 near Sanctuary Hall, where they will be prepared to wear mechanisms for monitoring heart rate and collecting sweat before beginning their walk through either the Green Road site or the other busier path, Deuster said. After walking either path, they’ll return to the lab, where researchers will remove the mechanisms, measuring their heart rate variability and biomarkers in sweat.

Part of their research objective, she added, is to look at these biological measures and gather evidence-based, quantifiable data, without too much burden on participants. They’re also looking to measure the psychological effects, and will do so by having participants complete a questionnaire and engage in a conversation about their experience after walking the different pathways.

“Our hope is to show that nature does have an effect on the population and caregivers,” Deuster said.

Their primary focus is on the military community, and continuously seeking ways to help all service members perform optimally in all aspects that impact them — psychologically, physiologically, spiritually and socially, she said.

But they also hope these data will translate to the rest of the population, perhaps by producing evidence that schools, for example, should allow children more time outside during recess, or that nursing homes should aim to take their patients outside more often. As an added bonus, the Green Road is available to patients, caregivers, and staff, to simply enjoy the beauty of nature.

“It’s a place where you can go and recover, restore who you are … forget about the stressors of life for a moment, and just allow your body to relax and regenerate,” Deuster said.