Embracing the Great Outdoors is Great Medicine

In the fall of 2023, 14 determined Butterfield residents and Carriage Club members took a life-affirming journey to Spain, where they hiked an impressive portion of the ancient and legendary Camino de Santiago trail. Led by Director of Wellness Jennifer Neill, the group covered 85 miles of hills, valleys, villages and straightaways over a span of several days – most of which brought persistent, occasionally torrential, rain. More importantly, the experience also brought the participants a sense of transformation, exhilaration and an enormous feeling of achievement.

Before traveling, the hikers trained for months at home in Arkansas. They learned proper use of walking sticks, completed interval training in the Butterfield pool and became accomplished at Chi – a form of walking designed to improve posture and make movement more efficient. Local retailer Pack Rat Outdoor Center helped everyone identify the best gear to withstand the rigors of the trip. Not only did every hiker stay dry and warm through bouts of extreme weather, not a single person experienced the painful blisters known to have plagued many Camino de Santiago hikers for more than a thousand years.

As Neill was guiding the group on its adventure, she noticed the hikers were finding themselves to be more grounded in and appreciative of the present moment. She observed everyone was feeling camaraderie, overwhelming positivity and joyfulness, despite any physical challenges they might be undergoing. “While walking, I kept asking myself what was creating such a wonderful experience, and was it possible to encapsulate a piece of it to recreate at Butterfield? One thing kept coming to my mind—nature— the healing benefits of being in nature,” said Neill. “So many studies have found being in a natural environment may help reduce stress, improve attention, boost immunity and lift mood. We experienced all of this while on the Camino trail.” 

After considering the popularity of Butterfield’s long-standing regional hiking program, Neill began looking into the benefits of a practice called forest therapy. A concept embraced for centuries and now practiced in more than 60 countries, forest therapy (or ecotherapy) uses techniques of immersion in a natural environment to improve overall health and well-being. The similarities of what the Butterfield hikers experienced in Spain directly correlates to results many gain from forest therapy: reduced anxiety, sense of community through a shared connection, introspection and self-discovery, mindfulness and engagement of the five human senses – all while strengthening the body and triumphing over what may have once seemed to be insurmountable physical limitations.

Neill is now working during the cold weather months to get the training needed to become a forest therapy guide. Her goal is to add more nature-based experiences to Butterfield’s fitness and wellness programming. “There is so much more we can do to take advantage of the many wonderful forests in our area, not to mention things we can achieve right on our own campus. I can’t wait to implement it!”

What is Forest Therapy?

According to the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs, scientific research has revealed fascinating forest therapy benefits:

  • Twenty minutes of simply observing a forest environment can lower the amount of the stress hormone cortisol found in saliva by 13.4 percent – as compared to being in an urban area.
  • A laid-back forest walk can drop cortisol levels by 12.4 percent and decrease the heart rate by 5.8 percent.
  • That same walk can lower the body’s “fight or flight” system responsible for making people feel stressed by seven percent, as well as reduce blood pressure by 1.4 percent.