Exercise & fitness

How walking in nature can benefit your mental health

10 May 2021 | Written by Kathy Feest

Mental health and nature

This year, the theme for Mental Health Awareness Week is getting out into nature. We’ve asked member Kathy Feest to share her thoughts on connecting with nature and how regular walks have done her mental health the world of good…

I’ve been a walker for as long as I can remember. When I went to elementary school in America where I grew up, I walked a mile to and from school every day. During my walks I plotted and planned and let my imagination soar. I made up stories that I’d write down when I got home, or had snippets of thoughts that would make their way into my diary.

Walking along the dirt road, I noticed the trees and how they changed each season.  In spring, heavy blossom gave way to summer green leaves that rustled under foot when autumn arrived. In winter the same branches were almost touching the ground laden with snow. They always dipped towards me, calming and refreshing my young soul. There were gardens and lawns on my journey as well but it was those trees along the dirt track that I loved the most! What I didn’t realise was that those walks were doing me the world of good. Without knowing it, I was practicing something the Japanese call shinrin-yoku or forest bathing. Soaking up the atmosphere meant  becoming aware of the birds, the squirrels, the rabbits and the occasional deer that peeked out at me. And like a dip in a comfortable bath, it restored and refreshed me. 

Nature and our mental health

Increasingly, scientists confirm that when we are in nature, our mental health improves. Studies have shown that as long as people feel safe, walking in nature is an antidote for stress. Professor Sara L. Warber, from the University of Michigan, says that although there are no “randomised, controlled studies” on the effects of nature on human health, “there are epidemiological studies and measurements of before and after exposure to nature, and the results from this research are robust.”  The results are in. Walking in a forest and being in nature provides psychological, as well as physical benefits. Blood pressure and stress hormone levels drop, self-esteem is improved and anxiety is reduced. We feel uplifted and calmer as we breathe in the natural world.

Professor Suzanne Simard has spent a lifetime studying the forests of her native British Columbia. Her work explores the interconnectivity of all of the living things that exist in the forest, from the trees and their root systems to the fungus that grows on the ground. If one tree needs more support, another will send it via its root system.  Like us humans, the forest ecosystem is complex and connected. Professor Simard reminds us that we too are connected to this ecosystem.  

Another group of scientists studying the effects of a walk in the woods monitored cells of participants’ immune systems – which fight infections – and discovered that there were elevated levels of cells following a woodland walk. They are convinced that this is accounted for because of the aerosols we breathe in that are given off by the trees. We are indeed all connected! 

And if you’re pressed for time?

Benefits to our mental health still occur if we merely stare out of our windows at trees with a cup of tea in our hands. If you don’t have any trees outside your window, don’t despair. Pull your favourite nature scene up on your screens and stare at that for a bit. Even staring at pictures of nature appears to have some effect on how we feel. Scientists believe being with nature is incontrovertibly therapeutic, others call it life affirming. Whatever you call it, know that nature is there waiting for you.  

A Native American Indian saying perfectly sums up the most positive benefit you may receive from your foray into the natural world… “May your time in nature lead you to yourself.”  Enjoy!

Kathy writes her own blog, Feest Isolation Days – Reflections from self-isolation in Bristol, which she has updated every day since the start of the first lockdown in 2020.