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Promoting the Perks of Nature


Promoting the Perks of Nature

The Nature and Human Health Collaborative is the first of its kind in Utah

By Sarah Shebek

NHH Utah Photo
Nalini Nadkarni and Dart Schmalz pose after speaking at the Utah Outdoor Recreation Summit in October.

You’re likely to be happier and healthier if you spend at least two hours in nature each week—whether you’re trail running or simply sitting in your
favorite park. That’s according to a study in Nature, and research continues to point to the benefits of outdoor time for physical and mental well-being. Nature and Human Health-Utah (NHH-UT) is focused on exploring that positive influence, bringing together a collaborative team of scholars, educators, practitioners, and community members.

Co-led by the Department of Parks, Recreation, & Tourism (PRT) Interim Chair Dart Schmalz, PhD, NHH-UT has already received funding from private and corporate donors, including the REI Cooperative Action Fund. Tim Brown, the president and CEO of Tracy Aviary, and Nalini Nadkarni, professor emerita in the University’s Department of Biological Sciences, help co-lead the efforts.

So far, they’ve used those funds to finance four different proposals that study the benefits of nature and examine how issues of racial and social justice impact access.

“We view the question of nature and human health as being trans-disciplinary. We can’t start a movement without incorporating multiple perspectives,” Schmalz said. “All the projects we funded have different dimensions and members, so we see that as an important component to how we’re trying to solve these questions.”

One of the projects, “Health, and Nature: A Community-Based Research Partnership,” is led by Jeff Rose, PhD, assistant professor in PRT.

He and his team are collaborating with Tracy Aviary’s Jordan River Nature Center to better understand how nature-based experiences contribute to measures of health and well-being for people experiencing homelessness.

The other projects focus on exploring the effects of nature on mental illness, a nature-based prescription program for older adults, and a nature immersion intervention for veterans with PTSD.

Schmalz said the goal is to have data ready to present at a symposium in the fall. “We’re focused on funding projects to better understand the links between nature and human health,” Schmalz said. “We are naturally more active when we are out in nature, which helps us physically, but at the moment the science is also pointing to how it helps us mentally and emotionally.”

Nature is good for everyone!
Nature is good for everyone!

The REI Cooperative Action Fund is also funding an NHH-Alliance. The goal of this group will be to create a nationwide nature and health movement by emphasizing of the value of nature in health, and the importance of the health of our environment. The alliance will also help facilitate launching additional NHH chapters across the U.S. 

NHH-UT is the first chapter outside of the state of Washington, where the initial group began. Schmalz and her team have big goals in community outreach for the Salt Lake Valley.

“We’re trying to do a grassroots effort to start the conversation. We want to do a speaker series, bring in people from research and practice. Let’s connect and get this conversation going,” Schmalz said.

To accomplish that goal, NHH-UT hosts monthly meetings that include presentations from research experts and are open to the public. On March 16, they hosted their first event, featuring former directors of the National Park Service.

If you’re interested in joining the movement, you can sign up for the NHH-UT newsletter online and join their membership.

“We want to bring more visibility to the idea of nature as a preventive health tool,” Schmalz said. “What better place to do that than in Utah, where our natural resources are such an important part of our identity?”