As a result of several coronavirus lockdowns over the last twelve months, we’ve all spent more time indoors than we might have done otherwise.
Once the current lockdown begins to lift, many of us will be heading into the great outdoors, keen to enjoy the fresh air and freedom that relaxed restrictions will likely allow.
Whether you opt for a stroll in the park, a wild swim, or a fell run, there are benefits to being out in the fresh air, both physically and emotionally.
Research has shown that spending time in forests can improve our health and wellbeing, a link well understood in Japan. The practice of “shinrin yoku” (or “forest bathing”) is a type of nature therapy popular since the 1980s.
It involves spending time among trees, allowing the sounds and the colours of the forest to wash over you. Its proponents suggest it is an aid to relaxation and overall wellbeing.
Here’s your guide to this beneficial practice.
What is “forest bathing”?
Forest bathing simply means relaxing in nature.
Slowing down and appreciating the beauty of a forest is a fantastic way to de-stress. It encourages greater concentration, mindfulness, and an appreciation of the natural world around you.
Whether you stroll through the forest or pick a spot to sit down, controlled breathing exercises, combined with opening all your senses, have been shown to improve mental and physical health.
Mental health charity Mind encourages “ecotherapy” for wellness. They found that 70% of those partaking in outdoor exercises such as walking or gardening experienced significant increases in mental wellbeing, with 60% experiencing improvements in their overall health.
Whether you live near a small urban woodland or a sprawling forest, time spent among the trees could help you relax. Try forest bathing all year round and you’ll also have the benefit of watching the ecosystem change.
How do I do it?
The important thing is to be outside, in the fresh air, surrounded by nature. If slowing down doesn’t appeal to you, you might opt for a more strenuous means of experiencing the forest, such as jogging or mountain biking.
To bathe in the forest effectively though, you’ll need to walk.
Dr Qing Li, author of Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness, told Time magazine that “You are going to be walking aimlessly and slowly […] It doesn’t matter if you don’t get anywhere. You are not going anywhere. You are savouring the sounds, smells, and sights of nature and letting the forest in.”
Turn off all your electronic devices, pick a starting spot, and from there, it is simply a case of moving slowly, taking long deep breaths, and opening your senses to what is around you. What animals can you hear? What can you smell? How do the leaves or the muddy puddles feel beneath your feet?
Taking the time to reconnect with nature – especially after a sustained period indoors – can help you to refocus, re-energise, and rebalance. Stay for as long as you can but don’t set yourself a strict time limit.
It’s great for kids of all ages too.
How does it help with mindfulness?
The NHS confirms that, while it is “easy to rush through life without stopping to notice much”, paying attention to the present moment can improve your mental wellbeing.
Mindfulness could help you:
1. Focus on the here and now
Taking notice of the things around you and engaging all your senses as you do so, can help prevent you from getting stuck in an over-busy mind, breaking the loop of worrying thoughts about the past or the future and anchoring you in the present.
2. Try something new and make it a habit
Trying something new is great for overcoming fears, for helping you get to know yourself better, and for sparking creativity. Picking a regular time, once a week say, will help to make it a habit. You’ll get regular exercise, a weekly chance to relax and unwind, and you’ll see the change in the forest throughout the year with the passing of the seasons.
3. Improve your physical and mental health
In 2018, NHS Shetland, in association with RSPB Scotland, began prescribing nature to their patients as a way to improve wellbeing. Last year, the RSPB announced that Edinburgh GPs would begin to do likewise.
Taking time out from a busy home or work life to indulge in nature and slow down could help your overall wellbeing.
Where can I do it?
Under current restrictions, you can only travel within your local area, so you need to seek out those wooded areas close to your home.
As restrictions are lifted and we can travel further afield, you’ll be able to access plenty of areas of woodland or forest wherever you are in the country.
Visit Forestry England to find woodland trails and great forests to explore near you.