Making Healthy Connections with Nature

Enjoying the views on Bandelier National Monument’s Tsankawi loop trail. (Photo by Bob Walker)

By Sue Watts

“I come into the peace of wild things … the presence of still water.

For a time, I rest in the grace of the world and am free.”

Wendell Berry

I experienced that grace when, with my husband sleeping in the ICU, I sat outside and watched the snow-filled canyon, listened to the wind in the ponderosas, and inhaled the scent of fresh air. Peace settled around me like a blanket.

Physically, mentally, and emotionally, the outside world of nature has so much to offer us in terms of health, particularly in this time of social distancing. Beginning in the early 1980’s, the Japanese introduced the idea of Shinrin Yoku. The idea is to immerse yourself into nature with no purpose other than to experience whatever nature you encounter. Since then, the interest in the health effects of being in nature has grown, and research has followed. Today, connections with nature are considered to be a part of preventative medicine. Globally, researchers have documented physical, emotional, and mental gains from a close encounter with nature.

On the physical front, walking, hiking, and biking are active pursuits that strengthen muscles, the heart, and lungs and can lead to weight loss. Research into the inner, often immediate, physiological effects of being in nature has shown that blood pressure numbers lower, heart rate slows, immune function improves, and the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in to help us “rest and digest.”

Responses from nearly 20,000 participants from the UK in survey data collected in 2014 to 2016 helped an English group discover that spending at least two hours in nature per week was strongly correlated with positive, healthy results. Four half hours, several hour-long excursions, or a two-hour stroll produced similar results.

The author, Sue Watts (second from right), leads PEEC’s Gentle Walkers group. This group is not meeting now, but focuses on noticing the parts of nature described in today’s blog post.

If you are not able to walk or get to a trail, explore your yard for signs of spring or find a “sit spot” where you can view the world. It will improve your mood. You can meditate, do deep breathing, or just sit there letting nature slowly reveal itself. For this exercise, it is not a question of how many things you can capture, but of what comes to you. Twenty minutes several times a week is often a suggested time frame for mood improvement.

For those of you interested in mental stimulation, research has shown that if we remain unconnected to technology while taking time to be outside, our creative problem solving abilities increase by 50 percent. Cognitively, being outside helps us to focus more intently. Time outdoors has shown a positive effect on children with ADHD.

How do we reap the benefits of being outside responsibly during this time of social distancing?

Atlas Obscura spoke with a few experts who have been studying the behavior of COVID-19 in the outdoors. Here are a few excerpts:

  • The virus “dissipates quickly outside, both becoming less dense in the outside air volume and more easily destroyed by UV light,” says Ellen Jo Baron, professor emerita of pathology at the Stanford University Medical Center. In other words, the coronavirus has a harder time spreading en plein air, perhaps even more so in sunny places.
  •  Dr. Timothy Brewer, an epidemiology professor and member of the Division of Infectious Diseases at UCLA adds, ““The concentration of virus drops off very quickly as you get farther away from a person”

PEEC recently released some tips on how to safely use our trails during COVID-19. Please keep them in mind while you are out on your journey. Observe the usual pandemic-related caveats: maintain at least ten feet of distance or hike separately, keep your hands away from your face, wash or sterilize your hands when you come home or before you dig into snacks. Avoid finding yourself in a long line of people snaking their way down a trail like one giant organism.

Hikers should also take the following safety measures:

  • Let someone know where and for how long you plan to walk.
  • Be aware of your surroundings and the way back to the trailhead (walk within a known set of boundaries like a road, canyon rims, the downward slope of a drainage). 
  • Take plenty of water.
  • Wear sunscreen.
  • Stay off trails if the wind is blowing the hat from your head.
  • Keep the bears socially distant. Apparently, the most effective bear deterrent is the sound of the human voice, so belt out a song or two as you walk.

“Deeply encoded in our psyche is the awareness that comfort, peace, and healing can be found in a forest. … It resets our nervous systems … so quickly and effectively, it is as if we have come home.”

M. Amos Clifford, founder of the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides

If you like, share some of the times you have experienced a lift from nature … physically, mentally, or emotionally.

Want to investigate further?

Passport to the Pajarito Plateau:

If you plan to hit the trails, be sure to bring along your Passport to the Pajarito Plateau. Once the nature center re-opens, we can catch you up on the prizes you earned! If you don’t have the passports at home, you can download and print these two-sided versions: Passport 1, Passport 2, and Passport 3.

No printer? No problem. Just use a sheet of scrap paper or take pictures with the rubbings.

The Science of Slowing Down Outside

By Sue Watts

The Gentle Walkers were perched on rocks and logs in a grove of trees. The shade and a soft breeze cooled us. Nearby, the East Fork of the Jemez River gurgled on its way to the canyon. Butterflies danced over wildflowers in a sunny nearby meadow. Birds sang or called from the trees, coming ever closer the longer we sat in silence.  The peace settling over us was palpable.

Experience has shown that quiet moments like these, unattached to the World Wide Web, can settle us and ease the stress in our lives. Science has been catching up with this idea, which was given focus by the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku, which is defined as “the practice of walking slowly through the woods, in no hurry, for a morning, an afternoon, or a day.” It is quite similar to the definition of sauntering: walking in a slow, relaxed manner, without hurry or effort.

In attempting to cope with the stress of modern life, some people in Japan started the practice of shinrin-yoku. Since it began to be noticed in the late 1990s, more and more people have practiced it because instinct and experience told them they felt calmer and more collected after a walk in the woods. While it began as an “intuition based therapy, it has now become an evidence-based therapy and can now be considered to be preventative medicine.”

Over the past 20 years, research in Japan, South Korea, Scandinavian countries, and the United States have documented the health benefits: a lowering of action in the sympathetic system, which is the source of our flight or fight response to stress, and more action in the parasympathetic system, which relaxes the body by putting it in a healthier rest and digest mode and restoring us to a state of peacefulness. In addition, a person’s blood pressure, pulse rate, blood glucose level, adrenaline, and cortisol can drop after time in the woods. The number of killer cells in the blood rises, strengthening our immunity. We sleep better. All this can stem from a stroll in the woods. People being people, they have capitalized on these finding, forming elaborate rituals and forming national and international organizations to standardize the practice. Still, it all comes down to a simple walk in nature without cell phones with the possible addition of a few simple exercises to increase one’s skill in observation. 

On Friday, July 12, PEEC will have a special edition of our weekly Gentle Walks to celebrate Los Alamos ScienceFest. This outing will be centered on the idea of shinrin-yoku, which is meant to reduce stress by enhancing one’s observational skills and bringing you closer to the peace of the forest. We will have several short exercises focused on seeing, hearing, smelling, feeling, and contemplating the place that surrounds us. We will meander along, taking in the world around us, celebrating its peace and beauty. We will not be trying to reach the end of the trail, which, we have found, changes the atmosphere and the peace of the experience. 

In short, we will heed John Muir’s advice: “People ought to saunter in the mountains — not hike!”

Meet at the Los Alamos Nature Center at 8:30 AM for Friday’s outing. You can pre-register for this walk here and request to join the Gentle Walkers email group for updates on upcoming walks by emailing publicity@peecnature.org.

Source of quotes: Yoshifumi Miyazaki Shinrin-Yoku: The Japanese Art of Forest Bathing, Portland, Oregon:  Timber Press, Inc., 2018

Articles by Local Authors

Articles about local nature topics, from community publications and the archives of our pre-2015 website.

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