At the end of the day, all you may need is a good forest bath to help you stay well.
A topic that made national news not too long ago, the concept of forest bathing is just one of many back-to-nature practices that provide therapeutic benefits. And there’s no time like the present to connect with the natural world.
- According to a 2014 report from the United Nations, approximately 54% of the world’s population lives in urban settings.
- The Environmental Protection Agency indicates that Americans spend more than 90% of their lives indoors: of that, 6% is spent in motor vehicles.
- UnityPoint Health System confirms that concentrated time inside exposes us to more airborne pollutants, especially viruses that perpetuate a weakened immune system.
- Children and adults are suffering from what some experts refer to as “nature deficit disorder.” Not spending enough time outdoors causes attention problems, desensitization, and a lack of vitamin D, which is produced by the body after exposure to sunlight.
- International medical studies point to a number of negative physical, emotional, and mental health factors due in part to certain urban environments. These include aircraft noise impacting children’s learning ability and “cognitive load strain” from the over-stimulation of a bustling city atmosphere. Urban life may also contribute to an increase of mood disorders, anxiety, and social isolation.
Now for the good news: spending time in nature, even for as little as five minutes each day, improves self-esteem and heightens your mood. Staying outside longer than that provides extensive health benefits.
How Being in Nature Improves Your Health
Unlike many other holistic treatment options, which often have people divided into “yay” and “nay” camps, there are few experts who find fault in spending time outdoors. Why is it so good for you?
- Enhanced calm. A number of researchers compared study respondents’ stress levels after walking down urban streets vs. nature paths. Overwhelmingly, individuals in nature settings had far less stress and anxiety, lower heart rates and cortisol levels, and faster recovery from stressors. The blissful effect of nature is even felt by office workers if they can look out a window and observe nature.
- Reduced pain. Various medical studies indicate that humans are biologically programmed to find water, trees, plants, and other aspects of nature interesting. This inherent attraction helps diminish levels of perceived pain and discomfort. Researchers continue to see the results of this theory by using plants and natures scenes in hospital rooms.
- Improved focus. Surprisingly, our digital worlds, no matter how global expansive, actually generate greater mental fatigue. In contrast, the natural world prompts what researchers call “attention restoration,” which enhances creativity and problem-solving skills. Additionally, both children and adults improve learning capabilities due to more outside exposure. Another research-reported benefit involving children with ADHD is they actually had increased attention spans after spending time outdoors.
- Decreased depression and “brooding.” Experts caution us on the dangers of rumination—also known as a constant reference to negative thoughts, emotions, and memories. Rumination is often the precursor to depression; saps motivation and increases frustration; and isolates individuals from positive social networks. Studies regarding nature’s effects on rumination show people who get outside for 30 minutes a day have “increased activity in the prefrontal cortex,” which improves mood and stimulates more positive thoughts.
- Heightened awe. A 2012 study determined that nature is one of the primary catalysts of wonder, or awe. This state of respect helps to magnify your place in the world so you live more altruistically instead of materialistically. In other words, it’s not “all about you.” This shift in perception often encourages more compassion with self and others. It also prompts more cooperation between people and support within communities, because of the attitude of caring for something greater than self.
Additional potential benefits include better sleep, improved memory, protected vision, and reduced inflammation.
For people in recovery, communing in nature on a regular basis may be the easy, free, and accessible way to maintain wellness and prevent relapse.
Maybe the thought of a mountainous backpacking excursion excites you. Or perhaps watering the porch container plants en route to the mailbox is all you want of the great outdoors.
Remember, even a few short minutes each day, regardless of weather, allows you to breathe in fresh air, rest your eyes from the computer screen, and clear your mind.
Here are some things to try:
- Forest bathing. Based on the Japanese custom of shinrin-yoku, forest bathing is a practice that asks you to simply be. At first, the ease of this is often hard for people who like to be on the move, but it might be exactly what someone else needs who doesn’t want to exert a lot of effort. The basic concept is to use all five senses and allow yourself to be immersed in the natural environment: listen to birds singing; look at the various colors of leaves; smell the earthiness of a forest; dip your fingers into a pool of cool water; and taste the air as it passes through your lips.
- Walking meditation. Nothing alleviates the specter of rumination more quickly than a deliberate nature walk. Whether it’s 20 minutes through a city park or six hours hiking in a canyon, the focus on present movement creates a healthful distraction and potential release from what’s troubling you.
- Outdoor activities. Any form of regular exercise helps your recovery, but enjoying the great outdoors while you do it provides additional benefits. Constantly changing terrain challenges your body in ways a treadmill can’t; the fresh air cleanses your lungs from indoor pollutants; being in sunlight helps your body create vitamin D; plus you gain all the mental and emotional benefits previously described.
Willingway’s Campus: A Nature Lover’s Paradise
We have 11 acres of mighty oaks, lush gardens, and water features designed for your optimum wellness. Take a tour of the beautiful grounds at our rehabilitation inpatient center to see for yourself.