The healing power of nature – it’s the premise of a program launched in 2016 by the Department of Community and Therapeutic Recreation at UNC Greensboro. “Celebrate the Trail to Recovery” uses hiking to help cancer survivors transition into “the new normal” after radiation, chemotherapy and rehabilitation are complete.

Twice a week, Dr. Justin Harmon, assistant professor in the Department of Community and Therapeutic Recreation, and colleagues lead a group on one of the hiking trail systems of the Greater Greensboro area.

The program is Harmon’s brainchild and utilizes principles of nature-based therapy. He began the program in November 2016, modeling it after a similar program in Colorado where he spent time as a volunteer.

Cancer diagnosis comes with a number of challenges that affect identity, physical ability and emotional well-being.

There’s something restorative and calming about turning off your cell phone and escaping into the woods, Harmon said. But there’s more to it.

Leisurely walks in natural settings have been shown to decrease cortisol levels, sympathetic nerve activity, blood pressure and heart rate, he said. Further, research indicates that issues of depression and anxiety related to illness and treatment can be ameliorated through simple exposure to natural environments. Immersion in wilderness has been linked to a decrease in negative emotions and an increase in positive emotions, suggesting that regular hiking can improve overall well-being, both physically and emotionally.

“It gives them the ability to see regeneration – that there is a rebirth cycle they are capable of post-diagnosis,” Harmon said.

Some of the participants have no prior experience hiking, so the program also provides a connection to something novel while giving them confidence in learning a new skill.

“I’ve been coming out every Saturday for nine months now. And each time I feel a little more capable of taking control of my life,” said one participant, a breast cancer survivor. “I’m still young. I want to experience more than I have been these last few years, and I think I found that courage out here on these trails.”

For more details about hike locations and times, email or call Justin Harmon at harmon@uncg.edu or (303)875-3977.

 

Story by Elizabeth L. Harrison, University Communications
Photography by Martin W. Kane, University Communications