October 28, 2016
Walking in Nature
Be Well

Walking in Nature

by John Swartzberg, M.D.  |  

A few months ago I went on my annual backpacking trip in California’s magnificent Sierra Nevada mountains. I usually go with a friend for five or six days, and we do pretty well, considering that we’re now grandfathers.

Though the trips are strenuous, I always come home recharged, physically and mentally. I get a lot out of exercising regularly year-round, at the gym or running in my neighborhood, but I get so much more out of this annual trek. It’s not just exercise, or a vacation or quality time with a friend. What makes it especially restorative is being out in nature.

This nature stuff may sound touchy-feely (very “Berkeley”) 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). The Japanese, in particular, have been studying what they call “forest bathing” (Shinrin-yoku)—that is, spending time in nature for therapeutic effects.

Studies have 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. 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 nature include giving the brain a respite from the multitasking of everyday life. If you enjoy hiking, you know that you become more aware of your surroundings—the sounds, smells, colors. Time slows down. Somehow this refreshes the brain and makes thinking clearer. Japanese researchers have found that walking through forests 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 five 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 days of hiking. I consistently experience that on my trips. Being out of the range of cell phones and email helps.

Not everyone enjoys hiking or can do it, of course. Other activities—by the shore or even in a city park—may be your thing. Find what kind of environmentalist you are, and enjoy.