Nature and exercise combine for UFV study

UFV student seeks cancer survivors in Chilliwack and Abbotsford areas, living with anxiety

Nature can soothe the soul. Health gurus, doctors, and counsellors all subscribe to the idea of getting their clients outdoors and active.

But there isn’t much hard data out there to support the practice.

Now, a UFV student with a background in outdoor recreation is setting out to measure how that sort of interaction can help lower anxiety. Joleen Prystupa is conducting the research as part of her final credits toward her degree in kinesiology. And there is no better way to study the mind than with a few willing participants.

Prystupa will be focusing in on a very specific target group — cancer survivors struggling with anxiety — and is putting the call out for a spring start-up. The group will head out with her twice a week for eight weeks, to get into nature through trail walking together.

“We are hypothesizing that being outside will reduce anxiety in cancer survivors,” she says. Cancer survivors are susceptible to anxiety following treatment, worrying about recurrences while physically and mentally recovering from surgeries, chemotherapy and/or radiation. “It’s almost a PTSD from the negative experience,” she says.

The feedback won’t include anything invasive, and participants won’t be expected to be in optimal physical health to take part. The idea is that they’ll take it slow, enjoy the walk, and immerse themselves specifically in nature. Prystupa’s current degree has an emphasis on exercise science, she has a degree in outdoor leadership, and she’s a qualified hiking guide.

She understands the physical barriers cancer survivors face and is eager to re-introduce them to the outdoors.

“I don’t know if it’s the green space or being outside,” she says. “(Doctors) don’t know. They just know it does help. There is something really powerful about nature; people respond positively to it.”

The group participants will fill out questionnaires about their state of mental health immediately prior to the study and to each nature walk, she says. They’ll also be asked immediately after the group get-togethers. Over the course of eight weeks, that data will be tracked by Prystupa and her professor Iris Lesser, who is overseeing the study.

She’s hoping to squeeze in a study group before the fire season begins, and the air quality is affected. If she has enough participants, she will run a group in the fall as well. Ideally, she says, her study could be the impetus for a community-based cancer survivor walking or hiking group.

“Ultimately my dream is that a hiking club would start around town that would motivate people to get outside,” she says. “We think of so many reasons why we don’t go out… but with a set time and a group, especially, that gives people that accountability.”

Lesser is an assistant professor in kinesiology at UFV, and a certified exercise physiologist.

She was excited when Prystupa came to her with the undergrad thesis project, for the impact it could have on driving forward more programming for those with anxiety.

Looking at anxiety reduction in a certain population of people “is not knock-your-socks-off science,” she says, but can help underline the impact of popular practices.

While health practitioners know that being in nature, going on retreats and taking up other therapeutic mindfulness practices can reduce cortisol (an adrenal hormone) and in effect lower stress, that hard data isn’t out there.

“Without the evidence base, you’re always just making assumptions,” Lesser says. As cancer research improves, more people are surviving their diagnosis. This is leading to more people dealing with the after-effects of care.

With the university campus located near pristine forest, they say they could not think of a better place to run the study. They’ve trails chosen trails within the Chilliwack and Abbotsford area.

Participants must over 18, cleared by a physician to exercise, and available for two and a half hours a week for eight weeks.

For more information, email joleen.prystupa@student.ufv.ca or iris.lesser@ufv.ca.

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