Researchers say one way to improve your mental health: go outside. That’s why Athens-Clarke County has decided to reopen the Firefly and Greenway trails for public use.
According to Athens-Clarke County’s website, the Firefly and Greenway trails “will be open for public use to provide recreational opportunities for the community to experience the outdoors.”
The State Botanical Gardens of Georgia will remain open in addition to the Firefly and Greenway trails. The garden’s buildings and the Alice H. Richards Children’s Garden will be closed to the public during this time, according to its website.
All other public parks, trails, and leisure services are closed until further notice.
These include Ben Burton Park, Dudley Park and Sandy Creek Nature Center trails. Bear Hollow Zoo is also closed.
Athens residents are currently under a mandatory shelter-in-place ordinance. The ordinance is designed to keep residents in their homes unless they have to leave for one of these exceptions: buying groceries, medication, work-related responsibilities and outdoor exercise.
Mental Health in a Pandemic
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has flagged mental health as a serious concern in this pandemic.
Park and trail closures prevent the spreading of COVID-19 and ensure the safety of the public, but not being able to go outside may take a toll on one’s mental health.
Athens resident Zoë Johnston, who has been self-isolating for weeks now, knows this personally.
“This going to affect a lot of people. I guess you can still walk in neighborhoods or on the sidewalk, but Athens has so many beautiful outdoor trails and parks. It’s not the same. We need to go outside and burn our energy and soak in some Vitamin D. I’d rather do that than stare at the same four walls in my room,” Johnston said.
Johnston said she has tried to be active outside. Rollerblading, sunbathing, and taking her dog, Boomer, on walks to give her something to do rather than lying in bed.
Research in ecotherapy, a growing scientific field, has shown a strong connection between time spent in nature and reduced stress, anxiety and depression.
A new study published in the International Journal of Environmental Health Research shows spending just 20 minutes in a park—even if you don’t exercise while you’re there—is enough to improve well-being.
A Stanford-led study showed quantifiable evidence that walking in nature could lead to a lower risk of depression.
While most public parks remain closed, along with basketball, tennis and pickleball courts, people like Johnston still have a place to experience nature.
Using Trails and Open Space While Social Distancing
The National Recreation and Park Association released a statement saying “that many parks, trails and open spaces can continue to be used in a safe manner that allows people to enjoy the mental and physical health benefits these spaces provide.”
Athens-Clarke County reminds the public when on the Firefly and Greenway trails to remain active and moving, refrain from gathering in groups, and practice social distancing.
Brie Wolfe is a senior majoring in journalism and theatre in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication and the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, respectively, at the University of Georgia.
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