On a recent backpacking trip with my family, I was reflecting on the meditative power of hiking and how the rhythm of walking and breathing helps to fully engage the senses in the smells, sights and sounds around us. While hiking, the mind often gently drifts off to other thoughts but then is brought back to the present by the rhythm of our movement and the details of the physical landscape through which we travel.
Anyone who has spent extended time in the wilderness has likely experienced the calming power of being immersed in the natural world. We become attuned to the simplicity of trail life and living in the moment.
When we return to our busy lives we are bombarded with distractions and it can be a challenge to be fully present. Developing a mindfulness practice in our everyday lives is one way we can help to tap into that intense feeling of being present that we experience in the outdoors. Not everyone has the luxury of being able to take extended wilderness trips, but the good news is that we can still reap many health benefits by spending time in our local green spaces, even those in urban environments.
In Japan there is a practice called shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing,” that promotes short visits to forests for relaxation and recreation. Participants “bathe” their senses of smell, touch, hearing, and sight in the forest atmosphere. An integral part of the experience is the aromatherapy of breathing in the naturally occurring phytoncides, tree essential oils, such as alpha pinene and limonene, which have been shown to boost immune function and promote a sense of well-being. Interestingly, these are the same terpenes found in marijuana strains known for reducing anxiety and promoting relaxation and stress release.
While many people are aware of the mental health benefits of spending time outdoors, there is growing evidence of significant physical health benefits to spending time in nature (in addition to the obvious benefits of physical exercise). A recent meta-analysis of 143 scientific papers, including studies on over 290 million people in 20 countries, found that spending time in natural green spaces is associated with a wide range of positive health outcomes, including reduced risk of type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease and premature death. People with more exposure to green space also showed reduced blood pressure, lower heart rate, and lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
In a world where more and more people are living in cities, suffering from chronic health problems and are increasingly disconnected from the natural environment, it is crucial for our physical and mental health to be making time to get outside, no matter how big or small the forest we have.