UC Irvine Expert on The Mental Health Benefits of Spending Time Outdoors

Recharge in nature.

In Japan, forest bathing is defined as taking in, with all one’s senses, the woodland atmosphere—a calming activity said to bring great mental and physical benefits. According to mindfulness expert Dana Rose Garfin, assistant adjunct professor at the Sue & Bill Gross School of Nursing at UC Irvine, walking or hiking our wilderness parks can help us achieve similar results.

How does forest bathing benefit our mental health?
I’ve long recommended what I call “sense and savor” walks or hikes. Maybe run your hand over the bark of a sycamore; watch out for critters; smell the sagebrush; listen to a woodpecker at work. The intention is to notice as many pleasurable and new things as possible on your hike, using every sense, and to stay focused on the now. This mindfulness helps reduce stress, anxiety, and depression.

In what other ways does hiking benefit our psychological health?
Novel stimuli work wonders for the plasticity of the brain, meaning that as we experience new things, our brains become more active. We feel a sense of awe and connection with our environment that is both energizing and restorative. Mapping out a route, or even getting lost in the outdoors, can enhance the brain’s creativity and ability to problem-solve. There’s a sense of adventure and accomplishment, too, and that helps lift the spirits.

Are there studies that prove the psychological benefits of hiking?
Yes, several. In one study, people experiencing a natural environment even through virtual reality, by way of 360-degree videos, showed improvements in emotional well-being. And heading outdoors during the pandemic proved a safe way to socialize with others and significantly lower stress.

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