Barefoot forest walks by doctor’s orders – Finnish city tests planetary healthcare
Meditating on the forest floor can be just what the doctor ordered. As the country’s pioneering environmental city, Lahti has been the first to implement the concept of planetary health as a part of healthcare. This summer, five locals tried a two-month health plan that brought significant changes to their carbon footprint and overall health.
In the field of planetary health, human health and the planet’s welfare are linked, and taking care of one looks after the other. The impact of the environment on people’s health has been long known: according to the WHO, almost 1 in 4 of all deaths in the world are linked to environmental conditions.
But can everyday ecological choices have a direct impact on health – already in the short term?
This summer, Lahti invited a group of locals to try a planetary health plan to see if making greener choices could also be good for your health. In June 2022, five locals received personalized health plans created by Finland’s first Planetary Health Physician Dr. Hanna Haveri and followed her recommendations for two months. Their carbon emissions and overall health were mapped before and after the experiment.
Biggest improvements in mental wellbeing
The participants were all local residents from different age groups: from busy young professionals and families with children to retirees. Health plans were tailored to each participant individually, containing recommendations for exercise, nutrition, relationship to nature and living environment. The planetary prescriptions took a creative approach to health: for instance, participants were encouraged to replace dairy spreads and cheese by foraging wild herbs from local nature, strengthen their connection to nature through barefoot forest walks and creating wildflower meadows in their backyards.
Despite initial doubts, participants were impressed:
“Incorporating post-run barefoot forest walks into my exercise routine has been mind-blowing. I’m a performance-oriented person and this has helped me slow down and pay more attention to recovery, says Markus Kontiainen, a 30-year-old Lahti resident who took part in the experiment.
After two months, Kontiainen, whose plan had a special focus on mindfulness and recovery, saw a 58 percent drop in his exhaustion levels.
Other participants saw various improvements in their wellbeing: Liisa Heino reduced her diabetes risk by 75 percent. Raija Repo, a grandmother concerned for the planet’s future, made major changes in her diet by adding the amount of vegetarian food by 40% and replacing dairy products with locally foraged wild herbs. She saw a 35% drop in her carbon footprint.
Busy working mom Anna Hakala looked for family-friendly ways to be more sustainable and managed to increase both her daily exercise score and the use of vegetables, fruits and berries by 20 percent.
On average, the five participants saw a 17% decrease in their carbon footprint, a 16% increase in their overall well being and a 36% drop in their exhaustion scores.
A green city is a healthy one
The experiment is inspired by an ongoing 10-year initiative Nature Step to Health in Lahti, which studies the long term public health impact of a greener lifestyle. Lahti is known for its green credentials: a pioneer in urban sustainability, it was named the official European Green Capital 2021 by the European Commission. It continues to promote a sustainable way of living that balances urbanity with nature:
“In the light of research, nature promotes recovery. Even short nature visits restore stress levels, lower cortisol and improves immune regulation. This is something that surprisingly many people do not think about,” says Hanna Haveri, a specialist in planetary health.
Learnings from this summer’s experiment, along with planetary health advice from leading Finnish specialists, will be shared as a content series in Lahti’s channels on YouTube, Instagram and Facebook. Watch a short video presentation about the project here.
The experiment was carried out by the city of Lahti with Päijät-Häme Joint Authority for Health and Wellbeing, Terveystalo Oy, Osuuskauppa Hämeenmaa, Training Center Pajulahti and The Sport Institute of Finland Vierumäki.
Read more: greenlahti.fi/en/planetary-prescription