Whether you’ve always been an outdoorsy type, or the confines of the recent pandemic has led you to embrace new al fresco activities, there has never been a better time to connect with nature. For starters, it’s now proven to have positive effects on your mental wellbeing. We say now because it’s a relatively new concept. Professor Miles Richardson who led a recent study undertaken by the University of Derby’s Nature Connectedness Research Group revealed that in 2001 there wasn’t a single research paper on ‘nature connectedness’ but that over the past decade, research in this area has blossomed due to the focus on the mental health crisis. Indeed, their study over four years has found that simply ‘noticing nature’ significantly improves quality of life. Similarly, Japanese studies have reported that just by looking at plants you can alter the electrical activity (pumping) of the heart, reduce pulse rate, muscle tension and blood pressure as well as boosting your mood.
It’s no coincidence that the activity known as Forest Bathing originated in Japan. Also known as Shinrin-Yoku, it was developed in 1982 as part of a national health programme designed to reduce the population’s stress levels. A practice that aims to open the senses to the forest surroundings, it teaches participants to inhale the forest air, listen to the sounds around them, feel the breeze on their skin and take a moment to connect with their environment. Gaining traction in the western world over the past couple of years, you can easily go forest bathing of your own accord or if you could sign up to some Forest Therapy where you will be assigned a guide to help get you in the swing of things.
Shirley Gleeson set up the Forest Therapy Institute last year which is an international training organisation for Certified Forest Bathing Guides and Forest Therapy Practitioners. “It’s a ten-day intensive course with a six-month mentored practice. Guides are trained choosing the best forest trails in terms of restorative elements (natural soundscape, flowing water, rich in biodiversity, wide variety of tree types etc) and also trained in designing sensory nature-based invitations to deepen your relationship with nature, enhance vitality and reduce stress levels,” explains Shirley.
You can find a list of certified guides and practitioners on their website but it’s becoming more commonplace than you might think so don’t be surprised to see it pop up on a spa menu. At Armathwaite Hall Hotel and Spa in the Lake District, they’ve recently introduced a two-hour immersive Forest Therapy session. “We were running a forest bathing package without a guide which was proving popular, but we felt participants were missing an important element and with a specialist, it’s a much more fulfilling experience in helping participants connect more fully with nature,” explains owner Carolyn Graves. Led through the hotel’s 400 acres, the experience ends with a tea ritual in the woodland gazebo. Bliss.
If you go down to the woods today
While the idea is to immerse yourself in the outdoors without technology or distractions, there are some apps that provide some virtual hand holding. Go Jauntly, a walking app, has a new function called Nature Notes that encourages users to record three things they’ve noticed in nature every day. Birdsong, the smell of wild flowers, an unusually shaped tree – it all counts. And if you’re getting more inquisitive by the day, there are also apps like Chrirp! that helps to identify birdsong and Plant Snap where you can upload a picture of a plant that’s caught your eye and it will report back with its vital statistics. Nature Finder is another good shout as it contains maps, events and listings of over 2000 nature reserves in the UK.
There are even festivals dedicated to the forest – Timber, held at Feanedock, a woodland site on the Leicestershire/Derbyshire border is far more than tree hugging and combines music, workshops, dance, gong baths, forest bathing and campfire stories for a nature-immersive experience like no other. And while it’s been postponed until next July, they are encouraging people to submit 60 second soundbites of the forest around them to create a soundmap that brings together tones and textures from the world’s woodlands. An ongoing project, it’s possibly the most relaxing thing you’ll hear if you’re stuck inside.
On The To-do List
Another excellent resource is forest educator Jennifer Davis’ book, 100 Things To Do In A Forest, out in August. Suitable for solo explorers or families, it does what it says on the tin and throws up original and unusual ideas of how you can spend your time outdoors. “We live in a world where we’ve become so accustomed to having goals, intentions or ticking off items on to-do lists. This book makes several suggestions for gentle activities that you can do to enable the process of letting go and just doing not very much,” says Jennifer.
Forest bathing is just one of her suggestions. Others include Nature Framing, Pond Dwelling, Urban Cooking, Fish Tickling, Green Exercise, Insect Management and Dadirri – another ancient method of reflection that utilises nature. “It’s an aboriginal practice in which people employ stillness, deep listening and a willingness to look within,” explains Jennifer. “It is far more self-focused than forest bathing which is about taking in everything around you and heightening the senses. It’s about becoming part of the natural world, rather than an observer of it. Many people find that they are uncomfortable with the level of inner-reflection that dadirri indicates as again, it’s the opposite of our fast-paced solutions-focussed society but by practising it you will become more tuned in to the energy of the world around you.”
Not all of Jennifer’s suggestions might resonate with you but even if you simply use some of them as a starting point you might notice you start to feel better in mind, body and soul. You might also subconsciously start to switch your habits. “Several years ago I read some research that said that people who spend regular time in a particular outdoor space are more likely to become environmental advocates for that space when it is threatened. I loved the idea that just being in the woods would naturally turn you into an eco-warrior and that it really was as simple as just going to the same green space regularly,” she says.
Does exercising outside count?
According to these latest studies, it’s what you notice when you’re outside that counts and will impact how you feel rather than how long you’re in the open air although the University of Exeter has found that 120 minutes a week in nature is the sweet spot. A bootcamp in the park won’t cut it though. You’ll still get the endorphins and fresh air, but your focus will naturally be elsewhere – “it’s more a form of green exercise than forest bathing,” explains Shirley. It’s also proven that the more you do your chosen activity – eg go for a walk in the woods, the more benefits so choose something that you can do almost every day rather than a once a week, weather-dependant activity.
How you’ll know if it’s working
Feeling calmer, more positive and less anxious are all wellbeing benefits that are said to come from spending time in nature. Carolyn Graves also flags up that it has been shown to accelerate recovery from illness while Jennifer says that alongside rosy cheeks and a feeling of cheerfulness, people report better sleep and is often one of the first things they notice. Then there’s the desire to share the good vibes. “If you find yourself asking other people to join you on your next woodland exploit, you’re probably reaping the rewards and subconsciously hoping to share that joy with others,” she points out.
Regardless of whether you remain working from home or the busier pace of life is returning, if there’s one thing you take from this slow-moving start to the year, make it an affiliation with the outdoors. Once you’ve found that natural high, you’ll be hooked.