The Japanese have a wonderful expression for spending time in the woods: Shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing. Widely practiced in Japan, forest bathing involves visiting a forest expressly for its health benefits. Advocates of Shinrin-yoku claim that breathing in the volatile organic compounds produced from trees, called phytoncides or wood essential oils, helps to promote relaxation and reduce stress. It works just like aromatherapy, set in the great outdoors.
Whether or not you buy into the aromatherapeutic effects of trees, the general health benefits of nature are well founded. Studies show that spending time in nature can help to enhance your mood, increase energy levels, and heighten your overall well-being. In fact, being outside for just 20 minutes a day is sufficient for boosting your vitality levels. Spending time in nature can also increase your resiliency to illnesses, promote longevity, and decrease the risks of mental illness.
It might not be a surprise that time spent in nature is good for your health. However, have you ever considered how spending time in nature can help to make the world around you a better place?
To explore this question, I challenged myself to spend one hour in nature every day for a month. In the most primitive sense, nature is any natural setting untouched and uninfluenced by civilization. Strictly speaking, a park with a maintained trail system and other amenities is not truly in a natural state. For me, however, spending time every day in authentically wild places is impractical. So, for the purpose of this challenge, I relaxed the definition of nature to include some minor human influences (a park with trails and picnic areas is considered to be nature; a soccer pitch is not).
One way that spending time in nature benefits the broader community is by promoting positive social interactions with others. Free of the distractions and background noise present in the city, the serenity of nature provides a perfect venue to connect with others. Even strangers seem more willing to exchange pleasantries in natural settings than in urban ones. These interactions can help to build stronger social ties and connectedness in a community. When social ties are strong, people feel less isolated and more inclined to help and support one another.
Whenever I was joined by friends or colleagues on my excursions, our conversations seemed more genuine, thoughtful and inspiring than had they occurred in a busy downtown cafe. One reason why nature promotes more enriching social interactions is that fresh air and natural light help to elevate people’s mood. Additionally, the physical activity from walking or hiking has been shown to improve the functioning of your brain, reduce stress, and increase energy levels. Quite simply, nature puts you in a better frame of mind for engaging in positive interactions with others.
Spending time in nature can also make communities safer. The sights and sounds of nature help to reduce mental fatigue by restoring the mind’s ability to concentrate and pay attention. When mental fatigue is relieved, people are better equipped to manage their problems calmly and thoughtfully rather than with anger and aggression. This can help to reduce the propensity for violence and crime in a community.
This month, I experienced the benefits of a calmer disposition first hand. As a result of a computer glitch, and quite possibly some human error, I lost four hours worth of work from my laptop. I was surprised at how calmly I responded. A more stressed-out version of me would have slammed my desk and hailed my computer with expletives. This time, I simply took a breath and then re-created all my lost work over the next two hours. I’d like to think my daily jaunts through nature were at least partially responsible for my calmer disposition.
One of the more surprising benefits of nature is its power to change our outlook on life. Research has shown that exposure to nature can shift a person’s values and priorities from personal gain to a broader focus on community and connections with others. Simply put, nature has the intrinsic ability to make people more caring and empathetic. I find it uplifting to know that nature brings out the best in people.
Spending time in nature is good for the planet too. It can enhance our sense of connection and appreciation for the natural environment. A stronger environmental ethos can promote more environmentally friendly choices and behaviours in our daily life, such as recycling, conserving energy, or taking transit. In addition, time spent in nature means less time spent on more materialistic and resource-intensive activities like watching TV or shopping.
Imagine if every one of us spent some time each day in nature. It’s not a stretch to say our communities would be more connected, less stressed, healthier, and more caring. We’d likely treat each other, and the natural environment, a lot better than we do now. Knowing that you are helping the world around you, while enjoying the scenic beauty of nature, provides extra incentive to get outdoors more often.
Take the Challenge
Want to try this challenge for yourself? Here are some suggestions:
- Create the challenge – my rule was to spend one hour in nature every day. Of course, you can adapt the challenge to reflect your personal abilities and constraints. If your schedule is tight, even 20 minutes a day in nature is good for your health.
- Get the right gear – use a good pair of shoes, comfortable clothing, and a rain jacket.
- Consult a map – before you start, use a map to pinpoint all the parks, conservation areas and other natural spaces near your home or work. Challenge yourself to visit as many of them as possible.
- Track your progress – use a pedometer to track how far you walk and how many calories you burn. It’s a good way to observe and appreciate all the physical benefits of your time outdoors.
- Invite others along – nature provides the perfect venue to connect and engage with others. For at least some of your outings, be sure to invite your friends, family, or peers to join you.
- Do some trips alone – spending time in nature gives you a chance to clear your head and reflect on your day. Take advantage of the serenity of nature by doing some of your trips alone.
- Go in the morning to increase energy – start your day with a brisk walk in your neighbourhood park. It will give you an immediate boost to help carry you through the day.
- Go at the end of the day to unwind – go for a leisurely stroll in nature at the end of your day to help unwind and relax. It’s a good way to reduce stress and mental fatigue, particularly after a hectic day at work.