Forest Journal: The Doctor's Prescription: Take a Hike

Sophie Oehler | August 15, 2023
Tags:
Education
A man in a red shirt stands arms crossed in front of a large field

Dr. Lon Setnik (pictured) from Concord Hospital weighs in on the benefits of hiking outside in time for the Forest Society's 5 Hikes Challenge. (Photo: Sophie Oehler)

Dr. Lon Setnik has worked in the Concord Hospital emergency room for 15 years, caring for what he calls “unplanned health care needs,” in short, anything from daily bumps and bruises to full scale health crises.  

“Concord is a unique hospital,” he says, “There’s enough resources to provide patients with the majority of their care in one community, but not so big that you feel anonymous.”  

Though he lives just five minutes away from his work, his 1927 brick house feels worlds away from the busy downtown where the highway marks the ticking seconds with the whoosh of another passing car.  

The Setnik house is situated at the edge of the Hale Easement, protected by the property’s original owner as part of a conservation easement maintained by the Forest Society. The easement, full of hardwoods, a meandering brook, and a vast bouquet of wildflowers, connects to Concord’s Swope Trails, where Setnik and family frequented during the 2020 quarantine. So much so that during that year, Setnik’s average daily step count came to 12,000.   

A man picks green beans in a vegetable garden
Setnik working in his sprawling vegetable garden in his front yard. (Sophie Oehler)
“Hiking a trail once is one thing,” he says, on his walking habit, “hiking it five times is another. But doing it 1,000 times over a few years, that gives you a different perspective: seeing the seasons change, noticing natural patterns.”   

Part of a new collaboration between Concord Hospital and the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, Setnik and other medical professionals are helping spread the word about the role that forests, and outdoor recreation play in keeping our bodies and brains healthy.  

The message will be featured during the Forest Society’s annual “5 Hikes Challenge” this fall, turning the hiking challenge into a quasi-prescription: “Take 5 hikes and call me in the morning.”  

The DIY challenge encourages participants to get outside by hiking or walking five trails on conserved properties across the state. Concord Hospital will also offer the challenge to its staff members as part of a larger program connected to learning and reading outside their professional roles.  

If the last few years have proven anything, it is that any profession in the medical field is a challenging one.   

At the height of the Omicron strain outbreak in 2021, three in five physicians reported feelings of burnout, according to an article by the American Medical Association. This percentage (62.8%) compares starkly with previous years, in 2020 38.2% of physicians reported feelings of burnout, according to the same study.   

Additionally, 2021 saw the highest rate of depression in medical professionals, the percentage increasing from 49.5% in 2020 to 52.5%. According to the study by the AMA, only 57.5% of respondents would choose to become a doctor again, dropping significantly from 72.2% in the previous year.   

“We’re excited to collaborate with the Concord Hospital on this year’s 5 Hikes Challenge — both to make the outdoors more accessible to the hospital’s hard-working staff and to utilize their expertise to help all of the 5 Hikes Challenge participants better understand the benefits of spending time in nature,” said Dave Anderson, senior director of education for the Forest Society.   

To counteract the burnout and the stress of his career, Setnik turns to his old friends — the trees. He is an avid rock climber, goes camping with his family, embarks on overnight backpacking trips and works in his vegetable garden, which flourishes in the lawn beside his house with tomatoes, summer squash, and green beans. 

A white dog looks into camera amidst a vegetable garden
Setnik

“I like to spend several days in a row on the trail. I find each time I do that the noise of the world is a little more balanced.” he says.  

Hiking isn’t just good for deepening our connection with our natural surroundings. It’s no secret that physical exercise is one cornerstone of maintaining a happy brain and a healthy body.   

Walking in the woods, Setnik explains, our blood vessels expand allowing more blood and oxygen to reach our brain. Our fight or flight response — instigated by stressors such as our phone screens, the sound of our email notification, hearing bad news on the radio — lessens, widening our scope of vision and lowering our production of stress hormones.

Of course, you could get this effect from running on the treadmill or lifting weights in the gym. But nature provides another layer of healing to the already restorative process of exercise.   

Setnik describes standing on a mountaintop, or beneath a canopy of trees, or at the edge of lake as a way of opening our perspective on the world around us. It helps him see that the world is bigger than his stress, his anxieties, and somehow in that, there is comfort.   

“We need balance,” he says, “Going outside and being in the broadness of nature will provide that.”  

He encourages his fellow health care workers to head outside whenever possible.  

“Go for a walk [as a team] together on lunch, instead of what we usually do which is not relaxing: checking emails, social media, or the news. That would be a great way to down regulate and get ready for the intensity of what comes next.”  

A man in a red shirt sits between two medium sized dogs
Ringo and the second Setnik dog, Hannah

I left Dr. Setnik’s house after our interview carrying fresh garlic gifted to me from his garden, a reusable bag he made from chicken feed bags, and a new perspective on the stressors in my own life. With a new election cycle beginning, transitions abound, and a healthy amount of work on my plate, it’s easy to get bogged down in the trials of the everyday.  

Let’s all take a leaf out of Dr. Setnik’s book, power down, and set out to find our balance amongst the trees.