Recreating the Country blog
What we all need is a wonderful woodland workout
or a fabulous forest fix
It was a warm Sunday morning in July and we had just arrived at the Royal Melbourne Botanical Gardens to immerse ourselves in nature.
You may be wondering where we would find nature in the middle of a big city. Intuitively we would all imagine somewhere wild where there is birdsong and where the drone of cars is a distant memory.
Yet on this occasion we had booked a two hour session of Shinrinyoku or Forest Bathing. A regular event at the very civilized and cultivated Melbourne Botanical Gardens. We were to join other visitors on a guided walk and immersion in the beauty of the gardens, a process that involved stimulating all five senses.
Our Forest Therapy guides explained that there are many recognised health benefits from spending time in nature. These health benefits had inspired researchers in Japan to develop a structured nature experience. An experience they hoped that would quell an epidemic of company executive suicides that was devastating Japanese families and businesses.
Shinrinyoku was first introduced in Japan as a public health practice in 1983 and is now encouraged as a public health initiative in China, Japan, South Korea and parts of Europe
The Japanese culture celebrates nature
Forest bathing seems a natural evolution in a country that has long cherished nature. The Japanese annually celebrate natural events like the blooming of the cherry blossom and when the fireflies multiply.
Their two major religions, Buddhism and Shintoism, also respect the values of nature and consider forests as places of mysticism. For Zen Buddhists, the scripture is written in the landscape and for the Shintoists, the spirits are in the trees, the breezes, the streams and the rocks.
Two fascinating Japanese studies give support to this initiative;
Dr Qing Li from Nippon Medical School in Tokyo showed in 2005 that trees and plants emit compounds known as phytoncides. When phytoncides are inhaled they provide therapeutic benefits similar to aromatherapy. Remarkably they also induce a change in blood composition which protects against cancer, boosts the immune system and lowers blood pressure.
Dr Li’s personal interest in tree therapy began on a trip to the forest in 1988. At that time he was a stressed Tokyo medical student and he found that a week of camping restored his vitality. This started his search for the scientific reasons for this effect;
“I have been investigating the science behind that feeling for many years. I want to know why we feel so much better when we are in nature. Some people study forests and some people study medicine. I study forest medicine to find out all the ways walking in the forest can improve our wellbeing”.
In 2009 Professor Yoshifumi Miyazaki from Chiba University discovered that having a 40-minute walk in a cedar forest lowered levels of the stress hormone cortisol. It also lowered blood pressure and strengthened the immune system.
Between 2004 & 2012 the Japanese government poured $4million into researching ‘forest bathing’, testing the effects on hundreds of subjects in different contexts and forests. The results of these studies were so conclusive that Japan now has 62 designated therapeutic woods which attract about 5 million visitors each year.
Last Child in the Woods
Across the Pacific, an American Psychologist sparked controversy when he published ‘Last Child in the Woods’ in 2008 and The Nature Principle in 2011>
Richard Louv created the term “nature deficit disorder” (click here for a 4 minute interview with Richard Louv) to highlight the negative effects on children’s health from spending less time outdoors and more time indoors. He inspired a national movement to get children outside and into nature to reverse the trend of children spending up to seven hours a day in front of screens.
He emphasises the importance of the mind/body/nature connection, which he calls vitamin N (for Nature).
“We are far more fully alive when we experience nature. This is when all the senses are working together”
Louv grew up near Kansas City on the edge of suburbia. In an interview he shares the importance of his childhood connection to nature;
“The woods I explored near my home became my woods. These childhood memories I now carry in my heart and I visit these woods in my mind when I feel anxious and need an escape”. He asks “Will future generations have that natural place to go to in their hearts?"
His concern is that in the last 30 years children are spending less time in nature and this separation has widened at a greater pace in the last 5 years;
“Kids now prefer to play indoors because of the messages they get from modern culture. They are hearing that the future is with electronics and nature is dangerous”
The David Suzuki Foundation has supported the vitamin N revolution by implementing innovative programs and resources for parents and schools. The David Suzuki 30x30 Nature Challenge encourages children and adults to spend 30 minutes a day outdoors for 30 days to kick-start new habits.
Suzuki aims to reverse the modern trend and inspire Americans to get back to nature;
“It’s essential that we reframe our traditional view of nature as a place for leisure and sport, towards one that emphasizes a full range of physical, mental, and social health benefits.”
Italian Physician and educator Maria Montessori was advocating the importance of outdoor experiences for children 100 years before Louv. She famously said;
“When children come into contact with nature, they reveal their strength.”
Her advice to parents and teachers was profound;
“Let children be free, encourage them to run outside when it's raining and let them remove their shoes when they find a puddle of water. Let them rest peacefully when a tree invites them to sleep beneath its shade. Let them shout and laugh when the sun wakes them in the morning as it wakes every living creature that divides its day between waking and sleeping”.
Our memories are sharper after contact with trees
In 2015 Gregory Bratman and his colleagues from Stanford University conducted a simple experiment on the university campus. They involved 60 students who they randomly divided into two groups:
The first group took a 50-minute “nature” walk surrounded by trees and vegetation.
The second group took an “urban” walk along a high-traffic roadway.
The nature walkers showed cognitive benefits including an increase in working memory and a decreased anxiety.
Bratman found that the participants who walked in the quieter, wooded portion of the campus had lower activity in the brooding portion of their brains than those who walked near the busy roadway. This meant they were more positive and didn’t hold on to negative thoughts as long.
Just forty seconds of green raises alertness in the office
We have a deep fundamental need for nature, so much so that even a short glimpse of green roof views for office workers boosted their ability to concentrate.
In 2015 Kate E. Lee and Kathryn J.H. Williams headed up a team at Melbourne University that looked at the value of micro-breaks. They found that participants got a boost in their attention ability after viewing a green roof scene for just 40 seconds. This is the first study that shows the remarkable finding that even a short exposure to nature (not exactly forest immersion) benefits our mental alertness.
Other studies have shown benefits to creativity from having office plants, a view through a window or even having natural wood or stone surfaces in the office environment.
Other researchers have found that creative professionals strongly consider nature to positively influence their creative performance, boosting flexible thinking, inspiring many new ideas and raising energy levels.
Victorian survey finds we love spending time in the bush.
A large ongoing study by the Arthur Rylah Institute found that most Victorians value time spent in nature. The quote below summarises some of their findings. Their results are easy to read and well presented here.
You could contribute your views to their current study by taking an easy and quick survey at this link.
Analysis of the data showed that people who are more connected with nature are also more likely to be active in looking after the environment. It was also clear that Victorians feel more strongly connected to unmodified nature (e.g. National Parks and beaches), but also feel very strongly connected to their own gardens.
Exposure to nature has many health benefits – the latest findings
“We gathered evidence from over 140 studies involving more than 290 million people to see whether nature really does provide a health boost."
Caoimhe Twohig-Bennett (2018). University of East Anglia, Norwich Medical School
This titanic study revealed that exposure to greenspace reduces the risk of;
Study co-author Prof Andy Jones commented,
"We often reach for medication when we're unwell but exposure to health-promoting environments is increasingly recognised as both preventing and helping to treat disease."
.... Forest Bathing at the botanical gardens
Our Forest Bathing began on the beautiful Oak Lawn where we experienced the old oak trees by touching the bark and looking into their immense canopies.
The natural sounds of the birds and the breezes in a bushy native area became our next focus.
This led us to the herb garden where our sense of smell was delighted by the gardens diverse collection of aromatic herbs.
After sitting for a while and contemplating the garden’s ambiance we finished the day together on a picnic rug.
Here we had a relaxed of debriefing session accompanied by an Australian version of the Japanese tea ceremony.
The key message was to become more ‘mindful' during our garden immersions by being more aware of what we're seeing, touching, smelling and feeling. Our worries and responsibilities are set aside.
During our journey of sensory awareness through the manicured garden environment, I began to miss the wild natural beauty of the native bush. The forests and woodlands of Australia that provide me with a sense of deep connection as well as calmness, when I immerse myself in their ‘aromatic airs’.
We are so fortunate in Australian as we often have in our own backyards, or at least within short driving distance, beautiful natural places to visit. One of the leaders commented to me that Australian plants are thought to emit many more phytoncides than European plants, but as yet there has been little or no research done on this.
Research is important and enlightening but sometimes we just know when something is good for us and our families. Like a break from our busy lives and a walk amongst the trees.
Stephen Murphy is an author, an ecologist and a nurseryman. He has been a designer of natural landscapes for over 30 years. He loves the bush, supports Landcare and is a volunteer helping to conserve local reserves.