From Japanese ‘Forest bathing’ and the importance of ‘grounding’ to a picnic in your favourite park – scientific research proves that being in nature really does come with health benefits.
Environmentalists and ecologists have been promoting the benefits of nature for centuries – John Muir, an environmental activist from the late 1800s, is famous for beautiful quotes like
‘The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness’.
He’d be delighted with the 1980s Japanese research that focused on the popularity of ‘forest bathing’.
This eastern practice, known as ‘shinrin-yoku’ (the term was coined by the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries, no less!) became part of Japan’s national public health programme after research proved that a walk
in the forest is linked to a definite increase in health levels, as well as drops in depression and stress levels. The research proved that ‘Forest environments promote lower concentrations of cortisol, lower pulse rate, lower blood pressure and greater parasympathetic nerve activity, and lower sympathetic nerve activity, than do city environments.’ Finland and the US have since recorded decreases in tension and anxiety levels in their research too, and shinrin-yoku guides have set themselves up in the business of forest walks all over the world.
Moms and dads are very aware that time spent out in nature with the kids ensures happy children for hours, and anyone who’s enjoyed a family picnic at one of our beautiful city parks recognises the feeling of calm and relaxation that comes with just sitting under the trees.
More than just shade, trees provide the planet with oxygen and phytoncides. The latter are released by trees and plants so that they can protect themselves from insects and bugs – the bonus is that phytoncides are really good for humans too. When you breathe in phytoncides, the number of natural killer cells in your body increases, helping you to protect and defend yourself against viruses.
A getaway to the bush or a stroll along the beach is almost instantly soothing, and we can all relate to the evidence that looking at nature brings about healing faster than staring at a brick wall when you’re feeling sick. Add the phytoncides to beautiful scenery, being outdoors, and enjoying a relaxing space, and some serious nurturing
It’s all about relaxing though – not racing along beautiful walkways or chasing through the bush as you try to score thousands more steps on your Fitbit or tick off a hundred birds on your birdwatching list.
By heading out to the bush or even into one of our city parks regularly – aim for once a week – your stress levels will decrease and your immune system will thank you.
Keep your feet (body) on the ground
Camping out in nature with just a thin mat and a sleeping bag is instantly restoring – remember the feeling of those soaring energy levels after a weekend in the bush with the kids! Known as ‘grounding’ or ‘earthing’, studies have shown improvements take place on physical and psychological levels when your body is in direct contact with the earth. But if camping outdoors isn’t really your thing, try just going barefoot. Even a barefoot wander around the garden for 10 minutes can lift your spirits and help to remove the grogginess of a long day at the office.
Joan Coetzee is the principal of the pre-primary at Pecanwood College. Together with several of the teachers, she’s been a regular volunteer at Pilanesberg Game Reserve in North West. The teachers spend weekends with the Wilderness Leadership School that involve everything from pulling out alien vegetation and mending fences to filling
dongas with rocks. Joan says going out into the bush allows her to just ‘be’. ‘I always feel happy and at peace; my senses come alive. The bush feels so real and my weekends there are like a pamper session. It gives me space to heal and revives me so that I can return to face life in the concrete jungle.’ For details about volunteering, email [email protected] wildernessleadershipschool.co.za .
Escapes in the city
Alain de Botton, author of The Architecture of Happiness, confirms the importance of green belts within city areas:
‘In the midst of a busy city, a park becomes quite literally an oasis and a tree can bring about an epiphany no less intense than a beautiful painting.’
Some of our favourite local city ’scapes are South Africa’s beautiful botanical gardens, including:
- Walter Sisulu Botanical Gardens, Roodepoort. The walk to the waterfall and around the gardens
is soothing, and spotting the nesting black eagles is always a thrill.
- Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, Cape Town. The Treetop Canopy Walkway is a must – the 130m
walkway snakes through the treetops, winding and dipping through the forest. Make the most of these
beautiful gardens by joining one of their regular guided walks.
- Durban Botanical Gardens – pathways take you through areas that include a garden of the senses,
a Japanese garden and a fern dell.
- The Lowveld National Botanical Garden in Nelspruit includes beautiful waterfalls and a suspension
bridge plus an African rain forest.
Visit Sanbi.org/gardens for more info about botanical gardens in your area.
International city parks that are currently on our bucket list:
- New York’s Central Park: 40 million annual visitors can’t be wrong! The 4km long and 0.8km wide
park includes 36 bridges, several lakes, and plenty of interesting walkways. It’s definitely one of the
world’s most important green belts!
- Stanley Park in Vancouver is just over 400 hectares and includes 27km of forest trails. It’s part of the world’s longest uninterrupted waterfront path, and includes Canada’s largest aquarium.
- Hyde Park in London is one of the city’s eight royal parks, and is home to the beautiful Serpentine Lake, vast expanses of open lawns, and the renowned Speaker’s Corner.
- Ueno Park in Tokyo is postcard perfect with more than 1 000 cherry trees lining the main pathways
– make sure you visit in spring! In addition to the restoring natural areas, it includes temples, shrines, and national museums.
- Balboa Park, San Diego features a stunning rose garden and a botanical building with more than
2 000 plants, in addition to kilometres of walkways that hikers and cyclists just love.
FEATURE: KIM SHAW PHOTO: FOTOLIA.COM