The trees swayed gently in the breeze, casting long shadows in the afternoon sun.
Birds busied themselves in the summer weather.
A river gurgled nearby, a hypnotic accompaniment to my walk.
Apart from the scenes and sounds of nature, all was quiet.
I took a deep breath of clean air, relieved to be back in the UK.
Just prior, I’d been living in one of the most populous cities in the world, stressed and overwhelmed.
Seeking new opportunities two years before, I’d accepted a job in China.
Having previously lived in Vietnam, I was drawn to the prospect of returning to Asia, and after reading Wild Swans, it posed a fascinating prospect.
Fast becoming the dominant global power, I was intrigued to experience the country before its inevitable social and economic development.
Experiencing such a foreign culture was both informative and unforgettable, but the pressure was beginning to tell.
So I met my then-girlfriend and suggested we quit our jobs before embarking on a new chapter…
[A motorcycle trip around Europe – a story for another time!]
Sure, I found my work stressful – but the main reason for wanting out were the environmental conditions.
On a pollution scale where anything above 301 is considered hazardous, Beijing has been known to reach 761.
Such conditions present as mist, enveloping the city and drastically limiting visibility.
Each time you leave your air-filtered apartment, a scratchy throat, runny nose and itchy eyes are almost bound to ensue.
And although I’d purchased a motorbike to explore the timeless Chinese villages that pepper the countryside, it wasn’t enough.
Living in a concrete jungle, while excellent for socializing, was becoming claustrophobic.
I had to escape.
And so it was that my first walk in the woods upon returning home was so refreshing.
Simply being able to breathe without consuming a lungful of soot was liberating.
While we were planning our imminent European motorcycle adventure, exercising in the woods became a regular routine and a stark reminder of the benefits of walking in nature.
It’s little wonder that the topic is becoming increasingly researched and reported, with the continued development of fields like Ecopsychology,
“Ecopsychology is an interdisciplinary and transdisciplinarity field that focuses on the synthesis of ecology and psychology and the promotion of sustainability It is distinguished from conventional psychology as it focuses on studying the emotional bond between humans and the earth.”
Furthermore, terms like Forest Bathing, developed from the Japanese approach of shinrin yoku, have almost become mainstream,
“This Japanese practice is a process of relaxation; known in Japan as shinrin yoku. The simple method of being calm and quiet amongst the trees, observing nature around you whilst breathing deeply can help both adults and children de-stress and boost health and wellbeing in a natural way.”
The benefits of walking in nature
1. Physical health
During my time in China, I developed an autoimmune issue and getting healthy was high on the agenda.
The health benefits of strolling in the great outdoors seem self-evident and almost implicit in the activity.
Fortunately, the research regarding such effects is promising, with a study of 20,000 people from the University of Exeter introducing the topic as follows:
“A growing body of epidemiological evidence indicates that greater exposure to, or ‘contact with’, natural environments (such as parks, woodlands and beaches) is associated with better health and well-being, at least among populations in high income, largely urbanised, societies. While the quantity and quality of evidence varies across outcomes, living in greener urban areas is associated with lower probabilities of cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, asthma hospitalisation, mental distress, and ultimately mortality, among adults; and lower risks of obesity and myopia in children. Greater quantities of neighbourhood nature are also associated with better self-reported health, and subjective well-being in adults, and improved birth outcomes, and cognitive development, in children.”
In their study, the team discovered that,
“People who spent two hours a week in green spaces — local parks or other natural environments, either all at once or spaced over several visits — were substantially more likely to report good health and psychological well-being than those who don’t. Two hours was a hard boundary: The study, published last June, showed there were no benefits for people who didn’t meet that threshold.”
2. Mental health
While the subjective benefits of walking in nature are often apparent, psychiatric unit researchers offer supporting evidence:
- Gardening stimulated reflective process whereby participants used the garden symbolically to gain insight into their illness
- Exposure to nature and sensory stimulation provided calmness and a change of environment from the sterile hospital unit
- Often resulted in descriptions of improved mood and pro-social behavior
- Fostered a sense of community, belonging, shared purpose, and reduced isolation
- Offered temporary distraction from unpleasant thoughts
Furthermore, researchers have demonstrated a connection between proximity to vegetation and lower crime rates, including assault, robbery and burglary (although not theft),
- Remotely sensed vegetation abundance has a negative association with crime.
- Violent crimes having the strongest negative association with vegetation.
- Vegetation reduces crime through increased public surveillance.
- Vegetation should be considered in urban crime prevention strategies.
3. Spiritual health
While mind-wandering can prove a useful exercise, so too, mindful walking is a wonderful way to bring us back to the present moment.
If you want to switch up your meditation practice and incorporate more movement, try reading Peace is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanh,
“Peace is present right here and now, in ourselves and in everything we do and see. Every breath we take, every step we take, can be filled with peace, joy, and serenity. The question is whether or not we are in touch with it. We need only to be awake, alive in the present moment.”
Furthermore, the book advocates the healing properties of nature,
“Nature is our mother. Because we live cut off from her, we get sick. Some of us live in boxes called apartments, very high above the ground. Around us are only cement, metal, and hard things like that. Our fingers do not have a chance to touch the soil; we don’t grow lettuce anymore. Because we are so distant from our Mother Earth, we become sick. That is why we need to go out from time to time and be in nature. It is very important.”
A corollary of slowing down is that nature-walking provides an opportunity for undirected thought.
In the book Daily Rituals, which examines the routines of household names and historical figures, extended walks appeared to be an integral part of cognitive work.
As summarized by Oliver Burkeman in his insightful exploration of the book, walking was a major component of many routines:
“Currey was surprised, in researching his book, by the sheer ubiquity of walking, especially in the daily routines of composers, including Beethoven, Mahler, Erik Satie and Tchaikovksy, “who believed he had to take a walk of exactly two hours a day and that if he returned even a few minutes early, great misfortunes would befall him”.
“According to legend, Immanuel Kant’s neighbours in Königsberg could set their clocks by his 3.30pm walk.”
5. Slowing down
“Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
The subjective experience of time only seems to have accelerated in our hyperconnected online reality.
Running on our hedonic online treadmill, we consistently push ourselves to take action, accomplish more, and go faster.
Walking in nature is a wonderful way to return to a more primitive experience, permitting an awakening from the matrix and immersion in our native environment.
Slowing down is an integral part of the process,
“Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.” ― Lao Tzu
Escape to nature
While it’s true that much of the current evidence for nature walking is correlational rather than causational, initial empirical findings seem to support the benefits revealed by our own inner wisdom.
There’s seldom an instance that, having traded screen time for natural scenery, you won’t feel the benefit.
Since leaving smog-heavy streets of Beijing behind, I now have easy access to nature, and my non-negotiable routine involves a daily walk in the wild.
I encourage you to follow suit.