How fortunate we are to live in a rain forest! Even as I’m sitting at my computer, looking out the window at the snow, sleet and grey skies, I’m grateful. Not for the grey skies, but for the trees surrounding us and a climate that allows us to get outside and be active year round.
Regular physical activity is important at all ages, but as we grow older being active becomes increasingly important. There is a significant and growing body of research showing that physical activity is beneficial in many ways. Exercise give us energy and strength, increases metabolism and reduces the risk of chronic disease such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease. It reduces bone loss. Research is also showing that regular physical activity can improve brain functioning too and may protect against dementia in later life.
Regular physical activity has psychological benefits too. It lifts our mood, reduces stress and decreases anxiety. People with mild to moderate depression derive significant benefit from regular physical activity. Our sleep improves; our ability to cope with stress (resilience) improves. We gain a sense of self-satisfaction and confidence when we are fit and strong. We can achieve a better balance between work and relaxation. If our work involves lots of thinking, computer work, and sitting at desks, it’s especially important to make time for physical activity.
But does all that research about the physical, cognitive and psychological benefits of exercise motivate me to go to the gym, to sweat, lift weights, run on a treadmill, or pound the pavement? Well, not really. What does get me motivated to move is the opportunity to be in nature, among trees. Several times a week, I like to hike or run trails in the mountains or parks. No music or counting kilometres to distract me, just moving. And looking, listening, smelling, sensing. It’s meditative, it’s relaxing, it’s stress busting. On sunny days, the rays of light shinning through the trees trunks and the green glow of the tree canopy are magical. On rainy days, moss covered rocks glow brilliant lime green while decaying cedar trees on the paths glow in red orange contrast. The sounds of birds are captivating. On windy days, the trees squeak!
I recently came across some research showing that being in nature is good for us whether we run, hike or walk. While walking in nature may not give us cardiovascular fitness, it does provide some important benefits, just like we get when engaging in more intense activity. Studies are being conducted, especially in Japan and South Korea, in which people walk quietly in the forest. This activity has been given the name shinrin-yoku (“nature bathing”) or Forest Therapy and it’s being touted as the latest fitness trend. Shinrin-yoku means taking in nature, using the five senses: seeing, hearing, sensing, smelling , tasting. (Please note: tasking doesn’t mean nibbling on unknown plants, which may or may not be poisonous!). At it’s simplest, forest therapy involves quietly walking and attending to the environment around us rather than thinking about other things such as that work project or the week’s schedule waiting to be sorted out. IT doesn’t include listening to music, checking emails or talking on the phone. Being in nature in this contemplative way is showing benefits such as reduced blood pressure, relief from depression and anxiety, improved cognition and reduced stress.
Walking quietly in nature gives our brains a rest. This can be vital to our well being when we consider how much time we spend on our devices and computers, working, checking social media, texting, playing games and so on, and sometimes all at the same times. Our brains are stimulated throughout the day. And our busier lives require more planning, organizing, scheduling and problem solving. How refreshing to put away the phone, turn off the pings and buzzes alerting us to incoming messages, to stop multitasking for an hour or so to just walk, breathe, look, listen, notice. This is what one researcher refers to as “soft fascination”.
Soft fascination requires that we feel safe and relaxed. For example, if I’m walking near a cliff edge my brain is on high alert. I can’t engage in soft fascination. But walking on a well travelled trail that’s familiar, with no cliff edges in sight, I can attain that sense of quiet interest in my surroundings. It’s restorative and rejuvenating. I come away from the forest happier, calmer and more grounded.
Here’s some more good news. If you’re unable to get to the woods, or have mobility issues, it turns out that looking at images of nature can provide stress relieving benefits too. So, whether running, hiking, walking, or gazing at images, nature is good for us!