Have you found yourself called to spend more time in nature this year? The CoVid-19 pandemic seems to have brought us outdoors in droves as we seek the benefits of being outdoors. Part of this trend has been driven by safety: we feel less exposed to pathogens when we’re al fresco, compared with being cooped up indoors. We’re also craving a sense of space and freedom, when many of our personal liberties have been taken away, in an attempt to slow the virus’s spread. With gyms and yoga studios closed, we turned to outdoor workouts to stay fit and sane.
On an intuitive level, it’s likely that we were tapping into our body’s wisdom and connecting with a deep knowing that fresh air, sunshine and nature have a deeply positive impact on our physical and emotional health. A number of ongoing scientific studies in Japan are demonstrating the surprising benefits of being outdoors and, specifically, spending time with our tree friends.
The lore of the positive effects of nature on the mind, body and soul is centuries old. Quotes from Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden” and why he “went to the woods” are woven into countless inspirational films, books and blogs. We know we feel good on a very primal level when we get outside, even on a cold, damp New York winter’s day.
And here’s why. Did you know that a simple walk in the park or forest can stave off depression, reduce stress and improve immune function—and thereby prevent a host of stress-related illnesses, including cancer? By measuring heart rate, blood pressure, cortisol levels and mental activity in those engaged in a sylvan stroll, scientists have proven that exposure to greenery – and trees in particular – has an effect on the nervous system that can be likened to meditation.
Here are some of the wonderful benefits of spending time outdoors:
- Lowers stress hormones
- Lowers sympathetic nerve activity
- Lowers blood pressure
- Lowers heart rate
- Improves mood
- Lowers anxiety
- Improves cognitive function
- Improves creativity
- Boosts immunity
Leisurely forest walks, compared with urban hikes, yielded a 12.4 percent decrease in the stress hormone cortisol, a seven percent decrease in sympathetic nerve activity, a 1.4 percent decrease in blood pressure, and a 5.8 percent decrease in heart rate. More subjectively, study participants also report better moods and lower anxiety.
Other studies have also shown improved cognitive function, test performance, and creativity. Amazingly, the Japanese scientists are gathering evidence that the aromatic volatile compounds – i.e. scents – of soil and trees have a tangible effect on the immune system.
Sniffing these substances while walking under a canopy of trees has been shown to promote the body’s production cancer-killing white blood cells and proteins. Incidentally, just looking at pictures of nature has a salubrious effect on people.
As a modern yogi, it’s always a delight to learn a new way to trick the parasympathetic nervous system into being awakened, and soothe our grumpy, growling sympathetic nervous system. The more tools we have in our toolbox to combat the negative effects of our hectic lives, the better off we are.
Happier, healthier, calmer, more brilliant and innovative, more successful, more connected. We know that yoga and meditation are both tonics for the part of our brains that help reduce stress and lead to peak performance. And knowing that a stroll under the canopy of trees can have a similar effect is eye-opening and encouraging.
I often recall one of my favorite ee cummings poems when feeling inspired on a gorgeous spring day: ” i thank You God for most this amazing day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees and a blue true dream of sky…” Thanks indeed: nature is medicine.
Read more about the original research on the benefits of forest bathing here
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