Why a walk in the woods really does help your body and your soul


Jeffrey Craig, Murdoch Childrens Research Institute and Susan L. Prescott, University of Western Australia

Have you ever wondered why you feel healthier and happier when you stroll through the trees or frolic by the sea? Is it just that you’re spending time away from work, de-stressing and taking in the view? Or is there more to it?

For more than 20 years, scientists have been trying to determine the mechanisms by which exposure to biodiversity improves health. Japanese scientists pioneered the search when they travelled to the island of Yakushima, famous for its biodiversity.

The Japanese already had a name for the experience of well-being in nature: shinrin-yoku or “forest bathing”.

Bathe yourself in the forests of Japan’s Yakushima island.
Alan Logan, Author provided

We do know that a diverse ecosystem supports a varied and beneficial microbial community living around and inside us.

We also know that exposure to green space, even within urban environments, increases our physical and mental well-being. But what are the mechanisms?

The forest air

The Japanese researchers suggested that we are taking in beneficial substances when we breathe forest air.

Research has identified three major inhaled factors that can make us feel healthier. These factors are beneficial bacteria, plant-derived essential oils and negatively-charged ions.

From birth to the grave, beneficial bacteria surround us; they live in the environment and, importantly, in the air we breathe. We also share almost our entire body with them. The more interaction we have with them, the happier and healthier we are.

This is in part due to our gut-dwelling bacteria, which break down the food we cannot digest and produce substances that benefit us both physically and mentally.

Plants and the bacteria living on them can produce essential oils to fight off harmful microorganisms. These are referred to collectively as phytoncides, literally, “plant-derived exterminators”.

Research on the health benefits of plant essential oils is in its infancy. But one recent study found that a phytoncide from Korean pine trees improved the health and bacterial make-up of pigs.

Notwithstanding some of the pseudoscience that gets wrapped around negative ion generating machines, there is evidence that negative air ions may influence mental outlook in beneficial ways. There are relatively higher levels of negative air ions in forested areas and close to bodies of water. This may factor into the benefits of walking in a forest or near the ocean.

But as the German writer Goethe once said:

Nature has neither kernel nor shell; she is everything at once.

Bacteria, essential oils and negative ions interact and influence each other. For example, negative ions and phytoncides may dictate the microbial make-up within a natural environment. There is evidence that this could also be taking place in the human gut.

More to be done

Nature-relatedness, or biophilia in which an individual feels connected to nature, has been linked with better health.

But we have a long way to go before we can more fully understand the mechanisms by which an innate love of nature can benefit our health. An important part of this discussion – an overlooked one in our opinion – is further understanding of an individual’s connection to nature.

Psychologists have convincingly demonstrated connections between nature relatedness and mental well-being. But how does a greater personal affinity to nature interact with dietary habits, personal microbiome, physical activity levels and many other lifestyle variables that might be intertwined with having such an affinity?

In the meantime, while scientists turn over stones and search for important mechanistic clues – including those related to biodiversity – there are many simple ways to capitalise on our biophilia.

Live in a city? The take time to walk in the city’s parks and gardens such as Melbourne’s Botanical Gardens.
Flickr/Stephen Barber, CC BY-NC-ND

Why not run in the park or by a river instead of on a treadmill, or take a walk through a park on the way to work or at lunchtime?

Critically, there is increasing evidence that we can help shape our children’s mental and physical health by exposing them to more green environments as they work, rest and play. The US-based Children and Nature Network is a great resource of research news and activities bringing children and nature together.

In the World Health Organization report Connecting Global Priorities – Biodiversity and Human Health, released in December last year, it was concluded that:

Considering ‘microbial diversity’ as an ecosystem service provider may contribute to bridging the chasm between ecology and medicine/immunology [… ] the relationships our individual bodies have with our microbiomes are a microcosm for the vital relationships our species shares with countless other organisms with which we share the planet.

It is easy to see that discussions of natural environments and human health are no mere matter of intellectual fancy.

In a paper published last month in Journal of Physiological Anthropology, we’ve called for more research into the links between biodiversity and human physical and mental well-being, particular in relation to childhood, that most formative of times.

Wouldn’t it be good if by nurturing our environment we were also nurturing our children’s future health?

The Conversation

Jeffrey Craig, Principal Research Fellow, Murdoch Childrens Research Institute and Susan L. Prescott, Professor of Paediatrics, University of Western Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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weekend walks: west head in ku-ring-gai chase national park


wise monkeys abroad

We were graced again today with blue skies and sunshine. The weather was a pleasant 20° Celsius without any wind this week (thank goodness). We drove to Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park so we could see Red Hand Cave and enjoy a walk to West Head Lookout and back.

The Red Hand Cave is Aboriginal rock painting and is dated to be about 2000 years old. It was very fascinating to see.

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The view out to sea from West Head Lookout was stunning! We could just see Barrenjoey Lighthouse….

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Our eagerness to walk (also as part of practice for the Camino), we thought we should challenge ourselves more. And we did. We headed down, down and further down til we reached West Head Beach, which we were SO pleased to do! It was so picture perfect and serene with calm blue waters in between us and Barrenjoey Lighthouse.

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But then, it…

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Walking Around Tomaree National Park


The Peripatetic Ponderings of a Passing Person

Zenith Beach from Ocean Rocks Walk – Tomaree National Park

Yesterday I decided to take a bit of a walk around Tomaree National Park which is located near Nelson Bay in NSW, Australia. Well worth a visit and the scenery on the way is something to behold as well – especially around Shoal Bay and Fingal Bay. Very spectacular scenery. Again, very much worth a look and visit.

Lomandra Fruit WWII Gun Emplacement

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Yacaaba Headland Walk


Kevin's Daily Photo, Video, Quote or Link

I ran out of time yesterday to post about my walk up Yacaaba Headland and how I only just avoided being in a storm that was moving in. So today (it’s actually the 27th July 2012 as I type away) I must get two days of posts done, even if I slip this one in back in time, so to speak (as you can with the post time when posting).

BrunchSo I decided to do the Yacaaba Headland walk just before lunch and had lunch in the carpark, while reading the paper. Nothing too healthy – I tend to eat far too much junk when I’m on holidays. So it was a bacon & egg roll, as well as a couple of potato scallops and some chips (and coke of course) See Picture at Left. It was really brunch and I needed the energy boost to accomplish the walk. Sounds…

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Check In: Day 2 of Holiday


I have had a most interesting couple of days on the road and in the bush. Currently I’m in a motel room at Woolgoolga, near Coffs Harbour on the mid-north coast of New South Wales, Australia. ‘Hardly the wild,’ I hear you say, and you’re quite right – it isn’t. The weather was beginning to change I noticed on the final leg of my day’s itinerary, so I decided to hide out in a motel room for the night – good decision, it’s pouring outside.

I won’t give all away – I’ll leave the main description of the holiday to the website – but just some of the ‘downlights’ of the first couple of days for this post.

I didn’t arrive at Cathedral Rock National Park until just on dark, but did get the tent up prior to darkness arriving – when it did, it was dark! The campfire took an eternity to get going as all of the timber was damp and by the time I got it started it was time for bed – all-be-it an early night (7.30pm). I had decided to not spend the money on replacing all of the gear I needed to replace for camping, following the loss of a lot of gear over the years due to storage, etc. I hadn’t done much in the way of bushwalking or camping for years due to injuries sustained in my car crash and a bad ankle injury, so I left it all a bit late. I figured that for this holiday I’d make do and replace the gear with quality gear before the next trip. In short, I’ll get by – but it would have been nice to have some good gear just the same. It was a very cold night let me tell you – and long.

When I reached the heights of my first walk today, standing on top of Cathedral Rock National Park, my digital camera decided to die on me. I knew there was something wrong with it during the ascent as it was really chugging away taking pictures. I did get a couple of reasonable panoramic shots on the top of Cathedral Rock before it died, so that was good. I took stills with the video camera I was using, so it wasn’t a complete loss. When I completed the Woolpack Rocks walk I made the trip to Coffs Harbour to seek a replacement and got one for a reasonable price. It’s just another compact and so I will also buy a digital SLR prior to my next trip I hope. My previous SLR was basically destroyed when the camera cap came off during a multiple day bushwalk and all manner of stuff got into it. It wasn’t digital so I didn’t bother repairing it.

So tomorrow – off to Dorrigo National Park I hope and several lengthy walks I haven’t done before. Hopefully the rain will clear.

 

Destination: Back Packing Holiday


I have pretty much determined that my holiday is going to be a back packing trip through the wilderness along the ‘Tops to Myall’s Heritage Trail.’ Now I need to decide on just what part of the trail I’ll do, if indeed not all of it.

One of the determining factors for the trip will be the availability of transport. I would need to get to the Barrington Guesthouse in order to start the walk if doing the whole walk, or either get home from the Gloucester area or to the Gloucester area to start the walk. The start from near Gloucester wouldn’t be an issue – that would be fairly easy to solve with Countrylink and family I think (combo). I’m not sure about the Guesthouse option just yet, but looking into it a little. I could easily walk from where I live to the Gloucester area (and for that matter do a return walk if necessary – though I’d prefer to not do so). I also think that Countrylink could easily drop me off near the start of the walk up that way (along the Buckets Way) should that be necessary.

The most likely outcome is that I’ll travel to Gloucester with Countrylink and then get a lift to the walk starting point from my family the next day. I could try getting a lift to the guesthouse with the family also, but that is unlikely to be an option I would think.

Next Trip: Back to Trekking


With the road trip now done and the car returned to Budget (rental), my thoughts have turned to my next holiday. I have a few road trip style adventures in the works, but my next holiday is likely to be a trekking adventure.

In the past I have twice walked across the Barrington Tops, completing the ‘Tops to Myall Heritage walk’ section as far as the township of Craven. I now plan to do the second section of the walk, from Craven to Hawks Nest – not far from where I now live. This has been something I have wanted to do for some time and now I intend to actually complete it.

There is no intended date at this stage, though I would hope to do it well before the end of this year. I would think it likely to be towards the early part of the second half of the year – if that makes sense.

Prior to setting out on this trek, I will be looking to update some of my gear (most of which has vanished in recent moves). I will be looking at a new tent and a sleeping bag for starters, as well as a new back pack. I’m sure there will be a few other things I will need to acquire before I set off as well.

Planning for this trip can all be followed on this Blog… stay tuned for further developments.