Whether it’s a gentle wander or a vigorous hike, being out in nature not only benefits your body but can do wonders inside your mind – here’s why.

By Katherine Watt 

Every time you head out for a walk, you’re treating your body and brain to a spot of ecotherapy. But this isn’t some pricey new spa experience, rather the term used to refer to the healing benefits of spending time in the great outdoors.

‘Human beings have existed for around seven million years,’ explains Professor Yoshifumi Miyazaki, author of Shinrin-yoku: The Japanese Way of Forest Bathing for Health and Relaxation (£12.99). ‘If we accept that urbanisation coincided with the industrial revolution, that particular history is only 200 to 300 years old, meaning humans have spent 99.99 per cent of their history living in nature. Your brain, body, and even genes are adapted to nature, but we now live in an artificial environment.’ This has led to a state of overstimulation and pressure that causes your body underlying stress without you even realising it. ‘In recent years, stress-related diseases have become a social problem on a global scale,’ says Professor Miyazaki.

Therapy of nature

So, the professor devised ‘Forest Bathing’, inspired by the abundance of woodland in his home country of Japan. His studies showed just how beneficial the stress-lowering effects of being among the trees were for people’s health. ‘After just one day of therapy, the blood pressure-lowering effects experienced by subjects continued for five days. We also noted that improvements in immune function continued for a week afterwards,’ he says. But it’s not just forests – studies to show the benefits of walking in fields, hills or by water have been cited by numerous health organisations, including the NHS, British Heart Foundation and Mind.

And the more impressive you find the views of that natural space you’re in, the better it is for you, according to researchers from the University of California. They found that feelings of awe when drinking in beautiful sights directly reduce the levels of inflammatory proteins in your body (cytokines). This change leads to increased feelings of general wellbeing and a stronger immune system to boot.

forest bathing

Relief for your brain

When you walk through nature and purely focus on what you can see, hear and feel there, it relieves your brain from the daily multitasking that it’s used to. This is how ecotherapy calms and renews your focus in the same way that a session of meditation would. Man-made landscapes on the other hand will stimulate your brain, but not replenish exhausted mental resources, according to research by the University of Exeter.

Without the interference of emotional or physical stress responses – no matter how subtle – you’ll not only have clearer thoughts and better physical health but you’ll also feel happier, and sleep more soundly. ‘When you come into contact with any kind of nature, your body automatically unwinds without you even noticing,’ says Professor Miyazaki. ‘This simple act helps to regulate your nervous system, promoting a healthier balance between activation and relaxation.’

Maximise your meander

In the Japanese studies, forest walkers focused on taking in all the colours of the cherry blossom or leaf foliage, sitting solo while mindfully sipping tea, or feeling the warmth and texture of the trees themselves.

But wherever you walk, simply tune in to what personally helps you feel good at the time. This could mean walking with no particular destination in mind, a lazy cloud-gazing stroll as you focus on your breathing, or simply enjoying time away from your phone so you can tune in to your thoughts

forest bathing

Did you know?

  • Even a short time spent in nature can give your mind a boost, so head outside daily – even if it’s just for five minutes.
  • People who live by the coast live longer, thanks in part to them walking more outdoors.
  • Group walks in nature are linked to improved mental health and recovery from emotional setbacks.
  • Walking near moving water increases levels of your feel-good hormone serotonin, as water produces negative ions, which react with the oxygen you breathe.
  • If you’re in an urban area, apps such as Walkit and Hikideas can guide you to the ‘greenest’ route.
  • Phytoncides are essential oils emitted by wood and plants, which boost your immunity