Who hasn’t felt happier after a walk in the woods, a picnic in the park or a day by the sea? There is something soul-soothingly refreshing about being in the great outdoors, mindful of Mother Nature’s gifts and grabbing spring and summer – and those blue-sky, brisk days of autumn and winter – with both hands. Sadly, though, we are becoming creatures wrapped by walls and trapped by to-do lists.
Being in nature is about tuning into the changing seasons and benefiting from the natural world around you. It’s the feel of a velvety petal, the sound of leaves in the breeze, the sight of dancing dandelion seeds. It’s about being present and alive.
Facts and figures about the importance of nature to our mental and physical wellbeing started to emerge on a global stage when shinrin-yoku (forest bathing) was introduced as part of a public health programme in Japan in 1982. The Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries coined the phrase and turned a mindful nature walk into a national pastime; one that would enhance health and happiness when participants opened all five senses to their surroundings, breathed deeply and walked thoughtfully. Japanese studies into the psychological and physiological advantages of this have uncovered positive effects on immunity, blood pressure and stress levels that could last up to a month after each ‘bath’ in the woods.
The benefits of forest therapy are partly due to various plant-derived essential oils called phytoncides – airborne chemicals with antibacterial and antifungal qualities, which plants and trees emit to protect themselves from germs and insects. Forest air doesn’t just feel fresher; scientists now know that it is better for us. These chemicals are so powerful that, when we breathe them in, they help our bodies increase and improve the function of white blood cells, which we need to kill tumours and viruses. And that’s just the beginning of the story. Other benefits of forest bathing include:
- Reduced mental fatigue Research shows that being exposed to environments such as a forest, lake or beach restores mental energy and that natural beauty inspires feelings of awe, which give the brain a boost. Spending time looking at plants, birds or any of the small details in the magical living world enables our brains to switch off and change gear, allowing them to focus better when we return to work or study.
- Better problem-solving In nature, the brain is more open to reflect, daydream and wonder, which boosts creativity. So a stroll in the park before an important brainstorming meeting could be a good idea.
- Increased happiness The Journal of Affective Disorders released analysis showing that a green, natural environment improves mood and self-esteem (crucial elements for happiness), and that the presence of water – a lake, river or ocean – makes the positive effects of happiness even more noticeable.
- Boosted immunity Dutch researchers found markedly lower numbers of diseases and health complaints, including heart disease, asthma and diabetes, in people who lived within half a mile of green space. Being in a whirl of phytoncides can boost the immune system, helping to fight off flu, coughs and colds. Another study has revealed how patients heal faster after surgery if they have a green natural view from their hospital bed.
- Diminished stress Many studies show that exercising in forests – or even just sitting in one – reduces blood pressure and decreases levels of stress-related hormones cortisol and adrenalin. Even looking at photos or drawings of trees has a positive effect – and that’s why my screen saver is an image of woodland.
- Improved ability to cope with pain I suffer from hormonal migraines and about 72 hours a month are wiped out by excruciating pain. However hard it is to pull myself outdoors, my spirits are always lifted. Soothing scenery and a lungful of fresh air have a noticeable effect on my headaches. A report by health charity The King’s Fund has revealed that being outdoors, and gardening specifically, offers the ill and unwell a myriad of physical and psychological benefits as well as natural pain relief.
It’s a time of increased light and heat: two things that rev up our minds and bodies. The earth has come to life again and you can feel it, too. Fling open your windows – house, car, office – and let the fresh air circulate. Pack away the hygge home-helpers (cashmere socks, woolly blankets and scented candles) that have hijacked your home since December and replace them with fragrant flowers and window boxes filled to the brim with bright bulbs. In spring, each day is a new beginning and forging strong connections with nature – something as simple as watching the bulbs burst and bloom from your kitchen window – will connect you to it and bring you unadulterated pleasure.
BASK IN THE SUNSHINE
We’ve all felt the glow of the sun on our skin, like a warm hug, and felt happier and healthier because of it. But we’ve also been scared of getting too much sun as it can cause skin damage – even skin cancer. We’ve become so cautious that the British Dietetic Association suspects our dwindling levels of vitamin D – the ‘sunshine vitamin’ – are making us ill, and advises that getting outdoors for 15 minutes three times a week to top up our levels should be as much of a priority as eating five portions of fruit and veg a day.
The liver and kidneys absorb the sun’s rays and convert them into a biologically active form of this wonder vitamin. Ultraviolet light converts dangerous cholesterol to vitamin D, so getting out in the sun every day helps to lower cholesterol. Sunshine also increases our levels of serotonin, the ‘happiness’ hormone, which helps with depression, headaches and loss of appetite. In turn, vitamin D encourages serotonin production and release.
A rise in temperature lowers the risk of deep vein thrombosis as blood vessels enlarge, allowing for improved circulation. People are less likely to die from a heart attack in summer and scientists believe higher levels of vitamin D play a part in improving heart-attack survival rates. Sunshine also helps us to sleep better. Exposure to the sun plays a part in regulating our body’s circadian rhythms, allowing us to enjoy a good night’s rest.
ENJOY A SEA VIEW
New research indicates that staring at the sea changes our brainwaves and blue is associated with feelings of peace, while the rhythmic tide calms an overactive brain. This wave of oceanic love – the sights, sounds (and, of course, smells) – activates the part of our nervous system responsible for helping us to chill out and release our worries. Sea air contains minute droplets of seawater (which as we know is filled with mineral nutrients) and is largely free from everyday nasties such as soot particles and exhaust fumes. So take a bracing beach walk and a few deep breaths.
TAKE A SOLO STROLL
Sometimes we benefit from a rural walk on our own, letting the wonders of the world wash over us without distraction. You’ll learn how to:
- Trust your instincts. Deciding which path to take when there is no one to ask means you must rely on yourself. This makes you braver and better at decision making. Spending time alone in nature will increase your self-awareness about what you, your mind and your body can do.
- The perennial vastness of nature will comfort you. Appreciate your insignificance and therefore the triviality of past worries or mistakes. Some things you have no influence over, just as the trees have no power over the changing seasons.
Stop blaming others, and hold yourself accountable for stepping on an anthill or slipping off a rock.
Be at one with nature, which will give you a feeling of power and strength – you are part of something majestic.
Five ways to make a nature walk spectacular
- Look down at your feet for small creatures, not at your phone screen for status updates.
- Lose the shoes and gain perspective. Let your bare feet feel the grass or sand – even leaves and mud feel nice if you’re careful.
- Be as quiet as you can. Then you’re more likely to be approached by friendly animals or ignored and allowed to observe them.
- If you can’t quieten your mind, distract yourself by focusing on your breathing. Counting slow, deep, rhythmic breaths should keep your mind away from niggles until you relax into your solitude.
- Enjoy it. There are worse things you could be doing than having quality you-time, observing the changing seasons in a place of beauty, as you replenish your entire being.
This is an edited extract from Forest Therapy – Seasonal Ways to Embrace Nature for a Happier You by Sarah Ivens, to be published on 19 April by Piatkus, price £12.99. To pre-order a copy for £9.74 (a 25 per cent discount) until 26 April, visit mailshop.co.uk/books or call 0844 571 0640; p&p is free on orders over £15