December 14, 2015

The Benefits of Spending Time in the Forest

Dashielle Vawter

Count me among those who are not surprised that the joy I feel after a trail-run in the forest is actually good for me. Crazy, right? But these studies aren’t just for those who hike, trail-run, mountain bike, and ski. The research being performed now demonstrates the value of time spent connecting with nature whether it is exercise related or not. That is to say- you don’t need to buy new shoes or get in shape in order to reap the health benefits listed below. Contact with nature, specifically in a forest or green space with trees:

  • Improves mood
  • Increases energy level
  • Improves sleep
  • Accelerates recovery from surgery or illness— Having a window out on nature positively affects recovery times of surgery patients
  • Reduces stress— Green space linked to lower cortisol levels (lower stress) in deprived communities
  • Increases ability to focus, even in children with ADHD—Children with ADHD are able to concentrate better after walking in a park
  • Forest-bathing (as it is called in Japan) decreases blood glucose levels in diabetic patients
  • Lowers blood pressure— Forest-bathing reduces hyper-tension in the elderly
  • Boosts immune system— Forest bathing enhances expression of anti-cancer proteins and human natural killer cell activity
  • Forest environments enhance human immune function
  • Even the color green, when seen in nature (as opposed to a wall painted green or an image of trees) has positive effects on mood and perceived exertion

I love to get outdoors so I find this information edifying, and if it helps people value nature more then all the better.

What else?

Stress, ADHD, mood, and all the other ailments listed above are signals from our body/minds that all is not well or in balance. What does it say that time in nature begins to ameliorate these conditions? Perhaps it indicates that  our separation from the natural world is also a contributing factor to individual health issues. Could the absence of relationship with the natural world be directly contributing to these growing epidemics?

I suspect it will take longer to get to that scientifically- but what I can say with confidence is that we do not yet know the full impact on our physical and psychological health of living in increasingly separation from the natural world; a world we evolved in very close relationship with.

Could the absence of relationship with the natural world be directly contributing to these growing epidemics?

The species and ecosystems that we spent millions of years developing in relationship with are wired into us in both known and unknown ways. So what happens as we cut ourselves loose from these anchors? In other words- will our software work as well inside a system of our own making? This is the question we seem to be exploring as a race, and also the question we seem to be answering, in the negative, through this research.

We learn in so many different ways. Even while in the classroom learning through books and lecture we are also learning about people, culture, our worth and status, society, and more. We learn about these things not through what is explicitly taught, but through everything else that is unsaid but that on some level we observe.

This learning primarily happens unconsciously, which perhaps accounts for why we don’t consciously understand or value its power. But if you’ve ever been more impacted by the way a person carried themselves than what they said, or known someone was lying because of some sensation you can’t name, or even felt danger or peace alone in the wild, then you have experienced what can be communicated to below the level of words.

Imagine yourself in a prison with cement block walls and no windows. What does this place communicate to you? How about a neglected neighborhood? How about a cubicle? Now imagine yourself on top of a mountain on a sunny day sitting next to a friend sharing an orange.

Our environments communicate everything to us about our well-being. Is there food around? Do people care for this place? Do other things live here? Is it beautiful? Does it appear to be in a state of balance? Our emotional responses to our environment are wired to help us find our own way to balance, health and satisfaction. To look at rising rates of cancer, stress related illnesses, heart disease, and on and on, indicates that the environments we are creating, in addition to the food we’re eating and how much we’re moving, are not helping us balance our systems and find our way back to health.

Nature demonstrates many things- not all of them pleasant. But ultimately nature restores itself to balance, restores itself to health, and achieves peace and beauty in a number of ways. What we learn from observing it are those same qualities—balance and resilience, among other things. Nature balances blood sugar. Nature helps bring down the distracted energy of an ADHD child so that he/she can begin to engage more deeply. Nature helps balance and relieve stress. As nature returns itself to balance it also reminds our bodies how to return themselves to balance.

Nature, no matter how wild it may be, always finds it’s way to a state of peace and balance. These are feats that nature performs effortlessly, and that our bodies and minds remember, even unconsciously, simply by spending time there. You don’t have to do anything except be there. Isn’t that amazing?

Rather than waiting for cures to be discovered or proven if we pay attention to what truly feels good, and what doesn’t, I believe we’d end up moving towards the same outcomes. Most people are aware that when they go outside, or for a walk in the park, they feel good. As long as we can discern between the sense of peace and perspective that comes from sitting by the ocean and the momentary glee of eating a donut we can feel when something is good for us or not.

Spending time in nature feels good. In a way it’s as simple as that.

Spending time in nature feels good. In a way it’s as simple as that. But if you want to read the research for yourself please click through to the article below, there is a large list of linked citations at the bottom.

In the culture we’ve inherited if it can’t be measured and understood it doesn’t have value. My hope is that as we again learn to value nature that we also learn to trust our own bodies and minds as instruments and indicators of our own natural balance. Our bodies after all are nature, seeking balance and health as well. May we remember how to thrive.


About Dashielle Vawter

I’m a coach, lover, writer, singer, experimenter, dancer and adventurer. Here's to our beautiful lives together <3

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