During these long months of lockdown, the government recommended walk in the park has given many people a much-needed break from endless Netflix binges and DIY. We have escaped from our own four walls into the great outdoors in unprecedented numbers. We've been running along footpaths, jogging round ponds, plunging into lakes and strolling through tree-lined avenues with a new-found enthusiasm. The permitted daily exercise felt like an order, not a guideline, and many took it to heart, purchasing brand new mountain bikes and stuffing drawers full of neon Lycra. But is enjoying the outdoors just for lockdown? Many psychologists, mindfulness teachers and other life coaches agree that it definitely shouldn’t be.
Not only is a walk in the park good for your newly expanded lockdown waistline but being outdoors has been proven to have beneficial effects on your health too. One study on patients recovering from an operation in hospital showed those with a view of nature outside their window recovered much faster than those without. It has also been shown repeatedly that spending time in nature reduces stress, depression and anxiety. These benefits are fairly widely known, but sadly often forgotten in our busy lives as we race from home to work and back again. However, the continued growth of concepts such as forest schools, woodland workshops and organisations such as NHS Forest, who are working to create green spaces to benefit the health and mental wellbeing of patients, staff and communities, all show that we are finally moving towards a realisation of just how crucial nature is to our wellbeing.
You don’t have to plan a trip to Epping Forest, even the trees in your local park can have a healing and therapeutic effect. In Japan the art of Shinrin Yoku (roughly translated as ‘forest bathing’) is practiced and widely accepted as being beneficial to your health, having first been studied in the 1980s. Researchers found that forest bathing creates calming neuro-psychological effects by causing changes in the nervous system, reducing the stress hormone, cortisol, as well as boosting the immune system. Every study has proven the benefits, which can also include reducing depression, anger, anxiety and sleeplessness.
So, what is forest bathing? Simply a leisurely walk among trees with minimal distractions (so turn that phone off!). It means giving yourself the gift of time to improve your mental wellbeing, allowing even just 15 minutes to walk without all the usual chatter in your mind, the worries and thoughts of what is coming next in the day, or tomorrow, or the tasks you need to complete. Absorb the atmosphere. Take time to notice the colours of the leaves and the different types of trees. Listen to the birdsong. Instead of just using your everyday, analytical brain, try to use all your senses to experience where you are in the present moment. Although your analytical brain will be seeking to label things and trying to distract you with ‘to do’ lists, re-running conversations you have had recently, or replaying old dramas, don’t beat yourself up if you find it hard to still your mind. You do not need to be Buddha. Just acknowledge you have had a thought and brush it aside to be dealt with later; don’t dwell on it. Try imagining a movie reel in your brain which you can wind on, skipping unwanted thoughts; maybe you will go back to the thought later, but now is not the right time. Now is the time to rest and recuperate in nature.
Dr Qing Li, an expert in forest bathing, found that the airborne chemicals (called phytoncides) that trees produce actually boost our immune systems by enhancing the activity of our white blood cells known as natural killer cells, so time spent among trees could actually help keep you healthy and disease-free. Research from the University of East Anglia has also shown that spending time in nature can reduce the risk of type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, premature death, preterm birth and high blood pressure. There is now real science to back up what many people who love the outdoors have always known: nature is good for you.
So, I urge you not to turn your back on the outdoors when lockdown is finally over. I hope that in this time when you have been taking more walks outside, you have discovered new places in your local area, perhaps parks and nature spots you didn’t know about before. Don’t desert them. Regular walks in these places really will boost your mental and physical wellbeing. By being in them and appreciating them, we can also help look after them, keep them litter-free and nurtured. Whether you take quiet, meditative woodland walks, or meet friends in the park for a picnic, take time to look at the beauty of nature all around you. After all, we are part of nature too.
For more information see NHS Forest, an organisation working to create green spaces for health purposes; Science Daily, ‘It’s Official – Spending Time Outside is Good for You’ (July 2018); and ‘Shinrin Yoku: The Art and Science of Forest Bathing’, Dr Qing Li.