Human health is defined as a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease and infirmity (WHO, 1948). Attaining the highest possible level of health is a basic right of every human being, regardless of race, religion, political convictions, economic and social status (WHO, 1948). The benefits of nature on human health and wellbeing (both physical and psychological) have been amply documented in the peer-reviewed medical literature.
The concept of immersion into nature and more specifically into forests has been successfully implemented in several countries. Shinrin-yoku (forest bathing, walking and/or staying in forests in order to promote health) is a major form of relaxation and therapy in Japan. Numerous beneficial therapeutic effects have been documented, these include, inter alia: alleviation of sleep disorders, stress-induced illnesses and regeneration and subjective perception of stress, increase of positive emotions. Specific benefits to the immune system and cardio-vascular system are inconsistently reported. However, results pertaining to childrens health and the activity of natural killer cells in relation to stays in nature are very intriguing.
Modern life-styles are often associated with sedentary indoor occupations, fast pace of life, traditional diets replaced by diets higher in refined sugars, refined fats, oils and meats resulting in a global obesity epidemic, type II diabetes, coronary heart disease and other chronic non-communicable diseases that lower alpine life expectancies. Concurrently a majority of people suffer from a loss of connectedness with nature and natural environments. This loss also highlights the importance of a clear working definition of nature in order to inform and develop policies.
In this talk we will examine the health values of "bathing in nature, but specifically not investigating the well-known added benefits of sports and exertion which can also be carried out in nature. We will discuss possible mechanisms to connect public health and nature conservation by valorising the added benefits to health from exposure to natural environments. This is particularly important in the current context where natural ecosystems have been suffering dramatic losses in extent, biodiversity, and function from anthropogenic activities. During the talk we will tap into existing tourism and health infrastructures in order to discuss the potential new brand of health tourism that combines physical and/or mental rehabilitation with health care provider-guided activities in nature. A payment mechanism, such as e.g. using a proportion of the tourist tax as nature-health-tax for conservation and restoration activities in the Alps, will be examined.
Dr. Chris Walzer is a board-certified wildlife veterinarian (ECZM wildl. pop. health) and tenured university professor at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna, Austria where he leads the conservation medicine unit. During the past two decades he has worked in the Gobi region of Mongolia linking wildlife health with the conservation of the Przewalskis horse and the Asiatic wild ass. Beyond central Asia and equids, Dr. Walzer has an internationally recognized diverse expertise in working with wildlife, especially megavertebrates, carnivores and primates gained from combined years of leadership and research in Europe, Asia and Africa. He acts as a consultant in wildlife matters for various organizations such as UNDP, World Bank, WCS and WWF. Dr. Walzer has authored more than 70 peer-reviewed research publications, numerous book chapters and lectures widely in the field of wildlife health and biodiversity conservation. Over the past decade he has additionally lead several successful large-scale EU-funded ecological connectivity and biodiversity conservation projects in the Alps. Dr. Walzer is the recipient of several research and service awards most notably the Distinguished Environmentalist Award from the Mongolian Ministry of Nature and Environment for contributions to the conservation of Mongolia's rare and endangered species.