You get a lot out of exercising regularly year-round, at the gym or running. But ever wondered why you get so much more out of a back-packing trip. Why, though strenuous, you come home recharged, physically and mentally?
This nature stuff may sound touchy-feely but there’s real science behind it. Lately researchers have been looking at what happens to our brains and bodies when we’re walking in a forest, in the mountains, or by the sea. The study of such “green exercise” usually falls under the umbrella of environmental psychology (or ecopsychology).
Japanese scientists have been studying what they call “forest bathing”, that is, spending time in nature for therapeutic effects. Their research found, for instance, that people do better on tests involving memory or attention after trekking through the woods than after walking in a city.People have increased vitality, that is, physical and mental energy, and a greater sense of well-being after walking through a tree-lined river path than after walking indoors on a treadmill. Other studies have even found that patients in hospitals tend to recover more quickly when they can see trees from their windows.
The proposed benefits of walking in a nature include giving the brain a respite from the multi-tasking of everyday life. If you enjoy hiking, you know that you become more aware of your surroundings – the sounds, smells, colours. Time slows down. Somehow this refreshes the brain and makes thinking clearer. Japanese researchers have found that walking through forest can help reduce stress, lower blood pressure and heart rate, and improve various aspects of immune function for anywhere from a few hours to a few days afterwards – while walking in a city does not. They suggest that various airborne chemicals emitted from plants may play a role.
All it takes is 5 to 20 minutes in nature to boost mood and energy levels somewhat, some research has found, though longer forays produce greater benefits. Other studies indicate that there’s a “third-day effect” – a special stage of relaxation and mindfulness that occurs after a couple of days of hiking.
Not everyone enjoys hiking or can do it, of course. Other activities – by sea shore or even in a city park – may be your thing. But be sure to have your stint with nature at least for few minutes daily to keep your body and mind healthy.