I can tell you firsthand that spending 72 hours in nature really does a body good.
Last summer, I hunkered down for three nights in rural northern Vermont near the shores of Lake Champlain. As cliché as it sounds, after the first 36 hours of fresh air, pastoral scenery and minimal-to-nonexistent cell service, I noticed that something had been lifted. I felt lighter, less burdened by my anxieties. Enveloped by the elusive qualities of stillness and darkness at night, I slept well and I slept hard. I'm fairly certain my higher-than-it-should-be blood pressure was at optimum chill level.
When those 72 hours in Vermont came to an end, my mood didn't shift to morose like it normally does when it comes time to return to my home in New York City. I was too blissed-out to be anything other than contented. Mother Nature had worked her restorative magic. My slate had been wiped clean.
Thousands of miles away from Vermont in heavily forested Dalsland, Sweden, the country’s tourism bureau has created an entire vacation-cum-wellness concept around the idea that 72 hours of direct exposure to nature can help cure, at least temporarily, the assorted ills of stressed-out city dwellers.
Can 72 hours of peace and quiet in the woods not only revive a harried urbanite’s spirits but improve their physical and mental health? Can three full days of outdoor activities — swimming, fishing, boating, warming oneself by a campfire and dozing off in a glass hut under a starlit sky — help to stave off the negative health impacts of demanding jobs and the hustle and bustle of big city living? And is 72 the magic number? Do our bodies require even more QT spent off the grid? Or could we get away with less?
Famously nature-loving Sweden has plenty of open space to seek answers for these questions. And Dalsland, a southwestern province where pristine lakes dominate the sparsely populated rural landscape, seems as appropriate a place as any to dig in.
The 72 Hour Cabin project's titular huts were designed by Jeanna Berger, an architecture student whose parents own Henriksholm, an island in Sweden's Dalsland province. (Photo: Maja Flink/Visit Sweden)
Dubbed 72 Hour Cabin, the concept is centered around several micro-cabins scattered across particularly beautiful and remote areas of Dalsland. This includes Henriksholm, a privately owned island on Lake Ånimmen where the initiative kicked off last month in a rather unique manner: a formal case study that sought insight into the “health effects of the lifestyle within Swedish nature.” The study was conducted by stress researchers at the Karolinska Institute, a leading medical research university in Stockholm.
Now that the study has ended and its findings have been published, the five glass-encased one-room cabins on Henriksholm that previously housed five stressed-out city dwellers are open for reservations to the general public. Similar 72 Hour Cabin-branded retreats — all large enough for two but more ideal for contemplative solo sojourns — located in other parts of Dalsland are also available for booking.
To be clear, 72 Hour Cabin isn’t catering to pleasure-seeking vacationers. Rather, the project was devised as a straightforward, no-fuss option for those looking to shed layers of stress via a quick but full-on wilderness excursion. And Swedish tourism officials aren’t counting on 72 Hour Cabin appealing exclusively to already nature-loving native Swedes. They hope that stressed-out urbanites from further field will decamp to Dalsland in search of an all-natural cure.
"For many Swedes, nature is a source of recovery, and works as a springboard for self-development, quality of life and happiness. We want to give people around the world an opportunity to gain insight into the relationship that Swedes have with their environment and inspire more visitors to explore Sweden’s vast, accessible nature," explains Jennie Skogsborn Missuna, Chief Experience Officer at Visit Sweden.
Creativity up, blood pressure down
The five 72 Hour Cabin case study participants — none of them Swedes — were indeed a fatigued and frazzled bunch.
There was Chris, a London-based travel journalist in search of peace and quiet between deadlines; Steffi, a police officer from Munich who struggles with the unpredictable nature of her job; Ben, an “always moving” London television presenter; Baqer, a New York City event coordinator who is “on” 24/7; and Marilyne, a Parisian taxi driver who describes her days as being filled with “drivers who are antisocial and unpredictable on the road and people who don't really know how to drive properly.”
After a three-day retreat on Henriksholm spent napping in tiny glass cabins and participating in super outdoors-y activities (I'm super jealous and echo this writer's thoughts), it would appear that the quintet of guinea pigs experienced significant levels of stress reduction.
“Since arriving, I have this good, warm and excited feeling,” said Steffi, the German cop. “Just smiling and being glad to be here now, in this moment, I don’t want to be somewhere else.”
In fact, lead researchers Walter Osika and Cecilia Stenfors found that stress levels among the participants dropped as much as 70 percent during their time at Henriksholm. Participants also experienced a 9 percent decrease in systolic blood pressure along with lowered heart rates and a significant decrease in anxiety. During the course of the study, participants noted that they felt a greater “connectedness to nature” as well as a “sizable” increase in creativity.
“I am positively surprised by the result and it shows that a ‘close to nature’ lifestyle can improve people’s well-being. On a 10-point stress scale, the participant’s stress levels decreased from 5.3 to 1. 7 points, corresponding to an almost 70 percent decrease of stress, which is remarkable, says Osika in a media release.
In measuring each participant’s overall state of well-being before and after the study, Osika and Stenfors used a combination of qualitative and quantitative methods. Given the non-scientific nature of the proceedings, the 72 Hour Cabin website notes that the results should be viewed as “more of an illustration of previous research.”
Some more details on how the study was conducted:
The participant’s blood pressure and heart rate were measured with a sphygmomanometer after five minutes of rest in a sitting position. They also got to do a self-assessment test where the status of their current well-being and connection to nature was examined. A remote associates test was carried out to study their problem-solving ability and creativity (creativity is always tricky to measure, but this is one of the ‘standard’ ways of doing it).
During the 72 hours, the participants also filled out a semi-structured diary every evening, describing their emotions, thoughts and relationships to the nature surrounding them. All in all, this gave an overview of the effects of 72 hours in Swedish nature.
Chris, the travel journalist, writes for The Telegraph: “… beyond the figures, I can tell that, though I am not quite a man transformed, I have dropped a few gears, tethered my pace, vanquished my velocity.”
Baqer, the study’s token New Yorker, reflects on his experience in a blog post where you’ll find key words and phrases such as “confident,” relaxing,” “life-changing" and “amazing five course meal prepared by the chef of a local restaurant.” Hey, sometimes serving as guinea pig comes with certain perks.
According to researchers from Sweden's Karolinska Institute, activities like kayaking, swimming and grilling with strangers on an isolated island can lead to lowered blood pressure and decreased anxiety. (Photo: Magnus Klang/Visit Sweden)
A tiny glass cabin of one's own
Looking to stay in the same five cabins where Chris, Baqer and the others had great success in chilling out?
As mentioned, the 72 Hour Cabin concept has now transitioned from a case study on stress to a wellness-minded tourism scheme thanks in part to the West Sweden Tourism Board. (Booking information can be found here.) Although future visitors may not have an experience that’s quite as “produced” as the case study participants, the available activities on the island are much the same minus the blood pressure readings and required journaling.
At Henriksholm, the base package for a 72-hour micro-cabin retreat (6695 SEK or $825 for single occupancy) includes three nights lodging in a bare-bones stilted box with glass walls that commences with an "introduction on how to destress in the best possible way."
Also included are all meals, including dinner served at the island’s grand 18-room manor house. A map of the island and a fishing rod are provided if guests feel like foraging for or catching a midday snack. Solar chargers, flashlights, sleeping bags, eye masks and water bottles are also included as is access to rowboats, a sauna and, last but not least, the Paviljongen, a nearby comfort pavilion with bathrooms, a shared kitchen and lockers. Canoe and kayak rentals cost extra as do special requests that can be added to the base package for a more customized commune with Mother Nature.
Cabin rentals located elsewhere in Dalsland — there are currently two additional locations: one at Dalsland Aktiviteter, a sprawling outdoor recreation complex, and the other on the grounds of a manor estate on Lake Laxsjön — offer much of the same. Just think of them as glamp-sites with a therapeutic slant and a 72-hour time limit.
This leads us to one last final unanswered question. While the Karolinska Institute study successfully illustrated the positive impact that intimacy with the natural world can have on the body and mind, there's still the issue of duration — is 72 hours long enough to soak it all in?
At least one study participant, Ben the TV presenter, thinks 72 hours is just right.
“I believe 72 hours is the perfect amount of time to kind of feel the change,” he says in a short documentary made about the study. “The 72 Hour Cabin project in the Swedish wilderness is like pressing a pause button on life. It gives you time to reflect and I think makes you a better person.”