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The Power of Nature: Winter Forest bathing in the highlands.

BLOG 30:Hiking in the autumn forest in our region is incredible. Before me are leaves the colour of gold, rust, crimson, red, orange and chocolate brown and the colours are amplified by the contrasting blue sky and deep green coniferous trees. My heart swells at such a beautiful view and I imagined hearing singing angels from above. This iconic Canadian landscape has taken my breath away. (Yes, it is possible I’m out of breath from the climb.) You know this feeling, right? A precious moment of lucidity. A feeling of a deep connection you have no words for. Well, researchers have been studying this ‘AHA’ moment in Nature and this moment is not to be taken lightly. What if I told you it is an important and necessary healing moment for your mind, body and soul? A necessary recharge. What would happen if you didn’t recharge your phone? The phone will lose its power and become inoperable. Just saying...

The positive effects of having an 'AHA' moment in Nature has been studied and popularized worldwide by Shinrin-Yoku scientist Dr Qing Li. Shinrin-Yoku is an ancient Japanese practice of forest bathing where one walks leisurely in a forest and calmly takes note of the surroundings while engaging all of their senses. Indoor people (like indoor cats) routinely use only two senses: sight and sound. Since the 1980's with Dr. Li and the Japanese government at the helm, forest bathing sessions began to be prescribed by doctors and exclusive forest bathing trails were implemented throughout the country. Almost 40 years later, forest bathing is slowly gaining its foothold in Canada.

The science behind why forest bathing is healthful is well documented in a book entitled 'The Art and Science of Forest-Bathing' by Dr. Qing Li. In this book, Dr. Li agrees with the Biophilia Hypothesis that was established in 1984 by American biologist and naturalist E. O. Wilson. Wilson says humans have a biological need to connect with nature because we evolved in nature for most of our life and are genetically determined to love it. Our unhappiness, stress and depression, he found, stems from our distance to nature and when we are in Nature our health improves measurably. Our powerful ‘AHA’ moments in Nature is a homecoming of sorts. We feel at home. It is in our DNA!

I share these 'AHA' moments firsthand on my guided hikes with customers. Every single customer has had at least one 'AHA' moment on the trail and newcomers to the forest have many more. It's quite rewarding to witness the wave flow into them and light up their eyes. Customers become happier, energetic, curious and creative for the rest of the hike. The gratitude they express at the end of my three hour hike is overwhelming to say the least because I really just guided them along and said ‘shhh!’ when necessary. The one thing that seems to cement my customers relationship to Nature is when we come across a scene stopping moment like a landscape view or micro view of a colourful mushroom. They’re hooked. I want everyone, especially the 85% of Canadians living in urban areas to experience ‘AHA’ moments in the wild and recharge every cell in their bodies. Ultimately my goal is to get you to naturally want to become a steward for the wild spaces around you and protect their biodiversity for your offspring.

As winter descends upon us in the highlands and we have less sunlight and more indoor time our mental and physical health can suffer. Forest bathing is the perfect remedy. It is the perfect remedy for those who do not usually enjoy outdoor recreation like skiing and tobogganing but need to get out and get some fresh air and sunlight. Never forget the ‘winter blues’ and angry holiday people can be sick from staying indoors all winter under artificial lights. While forest bathing is beneficial in any season, I feel it is really important during the winter because Canadians get the blues and all one needs to do is to walk leisurely in the forest on an easily accessible trail to alleviate symptoms. The walk is so slow that it should take a couple hours to stroll 500 meters and back. Examine your surroundings silently with no intent to forage or collect anything. Let your ears sense the subtle sounds around you. Touch and feel the plants sticking out of the snow around you to get a sense of their texture or see a pattern that you may of never noticed before. Smell the pines, spruce, hemlock and cedar scents in the air. Taste that pine nut or whatever to awaken your taste buds. Let your eyes take in the view and discover new ‘AHA’ sights as often as you can. All your senses should be turned on and getting recharged and you should be bursting with joy. You’ll be even happier if you have your Marino wool underclothes, ha! More importantly, don't forget to deeply breathe in the tree phytoncides.

The airborne tree phytoncides (essential oils) measured from oak, pine and birch trees by Dr. Qing Li in a 2010 study were shown to do three major things to us forest bathers:

  1. improve the functioning of our immune system by raising NK (natural killer) cells and increasing levels of intracellular anti-cancer proteins, NK cells increased 56% after three days of forest bathing.

  2. Decreases the production of deadly stress hormones, one walk can drop cortisol levels 12%

  3. Heart rate and blood pressure improves and one is now able to feel present in their surroundings (for a true moment of clarity)

Recent Canadian studies show similar and other significant health benefits from forest bathing that include: improves our mood, increases our ability to focus, accelerates our recovery from illness, increases our energy levels and improves sleep. Forest trips where researchers used the Profiles and Mood Test scores showed a decrease in scores for anxiety, depression, anger, confusion and fatigue. Aha, need I say more?

Well okay. I’d like to at least give kudos below to some cool Canadians who encourage forest bathing in our country. I'm sure there are many more but these guys stand out for me:

Dr. Melissa Lam who sits on the board for the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment and has devised a Nature prescription. She found that we are to spend no less than 30 minutes at a time in Natural areas and at least a total of two hours weekly to gain measurable health benefits from it. Phew, I do this already. Do you? Kudos Melissa.

Nurse Ruth McArthur of the Wasaga Beach Healthy Community Network who is planning in the near future to write forest bathing prescriptions paired with maps of accessible natural areas near Wasaga for her patients. She is also trying to get provincial parks to give free passes with her prescriptions! Kudos Ruth!

Tyler Coady of P.E.I a veteran who suffers from PTSD from his deployment in Afghanistan. He donated 10 hectares of family land to the Island Nature Trust for use by other veterans with mental illnesses because he knows how forest bathing in natural areas alleviates his PTSD symptoms. He has a Military Masters degree in Psychology. Kudos Tyler!

Lisa Nisbet, Ph.D, of Trent University ( Environmental Psychology ) has developed the ‘nature relatedness’ score. A nature relatedness score shows to what extent one appreciates and understands the complexity of nature. Nisbet found how time in nature influences our treatment of it and ultimately its survival. High nature relatedness score is best cemented before we turn 12 years old and her studies will hopefully get children to spend more time learning outside with all of their senses engaged. Inside the classroom we use just two senses at a time and its limiting to learning. Kudos Lisa!

Please get out and go forest bathing this winter for the sake of your mental and physical health. Please increase your Nature Relatedness score by frequenting and savoring the panoramic ‘AHA’ views and small ‘AHA’ treasures you discover during the walk. Don’t forget bring your kids under 12 with you! Please protect or become a ‘friend’ of your favourite nearby forest. A healthy mind, body and soul is your birthright.


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