I am an avid forest bather.  At least three times a week, I like to get away from the computer and spend an hour or two walking through my local ravines.  Every single time it’s different depending on the seasons and the times of day.  There are differences in the quality of the light, the texture of the air, the sounds, the smells, the feeling of the path under my feet.It turns out that the multi-sensory appeal of the woods is part of its ability to promote mental and physical wellness.  Forest bathing is the literal translation of the Japanese shirin yoku.   The term was coined in Japan in the 1980s, and the practice of spending time in nature was embraced as a way to counteract the stress of the workplace.  As the name implies, the objective is to immerse yourself in the forest in order to maximize nature’s physiological and psychological benefits.  Numerous scientific studies have since demonstrated that spending time in nature can reduce stress and anxiety, lower your cortisol levels, strengthen your immune system and promote creative thinking.

Forest bathing became essential for me in deepest lockdown, when it felt like walking in the forest was the only thing we were allowed to do.  Now that restrictions are easing and we are back to driving my kids to organized sports, I spend the time before their hockey and baseball games or during their practices walking in whatever green space I can find near the rink or diamond.  It’s not always a grand canopy of trees, but it is always a balm.  Once a month on a weekend, we try to hit a new-to-us trail outside of the city, and we chase the perfect canopy of trees.  In all circumstances, at all times of year, during a global pandemic and during the most ordinary of times, forest bathing is a sanity saver and wellness boost for both my mind and body.

That’s why I was surprised to learn that many Canadians spent less time in nature during lockdown than before: 7 hours per week, down from 10 hours pre-pandemic.

A new survey commissioned by Mazda Canada has found that although Canadians enjoy spending time in nature and 90% agree that it’s great for their mental and physical health, their time spent in nature has decreased since the onset of COVID-19. Other findings from Mazda’s survey include that 87% of Canadians agree that being in nature reduces their stress levels and 68% agree it increases their productivity.

If so many of us agree that it feels great and it’s good for us, why are our hours down?  The two main reasons cited in the survey are lack of motivation and lack of time.

If you are determined to bust out of confinement by spending more time under the trees, here are some findings that might help motivate you.  I spoke to to Nicole Porter, Stress Coach and Wellness Educator and partner for Mazda Canada.

NF: Mazda’s survey revealed quite a gap between what we know is good for us (90% agree spending time in nature is healthy) and the ability to execute (our time is down 3hrs/week).  How can we bridge the gap?
NP: Trying to spend more time in nature is no different than building any other habit. Sometimes we know what is good for us, but we don’t make the time for it.  One of the main reasons for this gap is that people just haven’t experienced the full benefits of being in nature yet and therefore haven’t decided to prioritize it.  Just like with any new habit, we can bridge that gap by understanding that every minute counts. We live in an all or nothing society that typically believes we have to do everything 100% in order for it to count or work, in order for it to have a beneficial effect.  This couldn’t be further from the truth.  When it comes to better diet, more exercise, better sleep, meditation, and in this case getting outside to enjoy the benefits of nature, every minute counts. So, although an hour a day might be ideal, it doesn’t mean that that squeezing in five minutes won’t have a positive impact.
NF: What are some of the measurable benefits of forest bathing?
NP:  There are so many.
  • Improves sleep: Sleep is the only time our bodies and brains have to recover from the stresses of the day. Exposure to sunlight (even behind grey clouds) during the day increases our melatonin production at night – a natural hormone that is produced in the brain, which helps regulate our sleep cycle and promotes consistent, quality rest.
  • Reduces stress: Being in nature calms our senses. There is less stress on our nerves, our nervous system and our brain when we connect with nature, and therefore less stress on our body. With our nervous system calm, it means our bodies are in ‘Rest and Digest’ mode which offers key benefits such as improved digestion, immunity, cognitive health, memory and mood.
  • Improves focus and productivity: The brain is like a muscle; it needs to be trained in order to stay fit. With new things to see, smell, touch, hear, and maybe even taste, nature provides an opportunity to experience an entirely different environment. This is where brain training comes in – if we mindfully use our senses to pay attention in nature, it is like training our brain to focus. And where there’s focus, there’s productivity.

NF: How do we train our brains?

NP: It is important to be mindful.  Forest bathing is not just walking through the forest.  It’s doing so mindfully while being present and paying attention.  This forces us–in a good way–to slow down from daily life.  Being mindful has endless benefits on our health.  Our nervous systems are positively impacted, which can impact all of the systems of our bodies: immune system, sleep, digestion, hormones, skin health, mental health, and so much more.

NF: What are some tips to maximize the beneficial effects of our time spent in nature?
NP:  Maximizing the benefits can really be narrowed down to one simple tip: to be mindful.
  • Remove the airpods.  We are so attached to devices.  It’s time to get more connected to our bodies.  Instead of stimulating your senses by listenting to music or a podcast, calm your senses by listening to the sounds of nature around you.
  • With your senses free and receptive, pay attention to your surroundings.  Observe the leaves on the trees that are close to you, but also look at what’s on the horizon.  We are so often staring at devices and screens at short range that our eyesight has changed and we have trouble with depth perception and adapting to further distances.  Whether you’re in the forest or on city streets, pay attention to the little things, but look at the big picture, too!
  • Practice gratitude.  This may seem like a trivial or less impactful tip, but it’s challenging to feel stressed out when you’re in a state of gratitude.

Visit MazdaStories.ca  to read more about the Japanese principles of forest bathing and how the rituals are ingrained in the company’s appreciation in the need for calm and space.