Walking In Nature Reduces Stress Level, Blood Pressure, and Heart Rate
Last weekend I traveled to South Lake Tahoe, California to hike for the weekend. If you were like me and never heard of Tahoe before, then you need to set aside some vacation days and head there. Now, Tahoe isn't just for hiking and being one with nature. There are plenty of places to party and socialize including casino's, bars, and live music. So of course, I gambled, drank and stayed up all night.
Even though I drank heavily and slept little, I still woke up for my morning hikes. Don't get me wrong, it was hard to wake up on five hours of sleep, but once I got outdoors I felt my fatigue disappear. I was shocked to have high levels of energy throughout the day on such little sleep. Usually, I need between seven to nine hours per night to function, but I was running on five to six hours a night. And it wasn't like I was sitting around all day doing nothing. Over the course of the weekend, I hiked three trails that collectively totaled about 20 miles. My two favorite hikes of the weekend were Mt. Tallac and Maggies Peaks. (Excuse the selfie and click through to see Tahoe's beauty.)
After returning home from vacation, I was curious as to why I was able to function so well on little sleep. Somehow my body had been able to recover on little sleep, which goes against everything I know as a trainer. These two points sparked my curiosity and led to hours of research on nature's stress reduction effects.
It turns out I am not the only one who has experienced the benefits of nature. In Japan, they actually have a name for it. The approach is called “Shinrin-yoku” and means “taking in the forest atmosphere through all of our senses," also known as "forest bathing" or nature therapy. The goal of forest bathing is to render a state of physiological relaxation and boost the weakened immune functions to prevent diseases(1).
A study done in Public Health sought out to test the effectiveness of nature therapy in a large number of participants. Four hundred ninety-eight subjects volunteered to take part in the study. The participants filled out a survey during their time in nature and another one outside of nature. The surveys measured hostility, depression, boredom, friendliness, well-being, and liveliness.
The authors found significant decreases in depression and hostility, while liveliness increases significantly (1). Also, participants with the highest stress levels experienced the best effects; put simply, the higher the stress level, the greater the effect (1).Since I had experienced these effects in Tahoe, I was biased to believe the research. Therefore, I needed more proof than one study. It didn’t take long before I found what I needed.
I came across a review study on PubMed titled, "Physiological Effects of Nature Therapy: A Review of the Research in Japan." The study reviewed 52 studies from Japan between the years of 1996-2016. The purpose of the review was to see whether or not there was any validity to the forest bathing claims. The results were clear; walking in nature or parks reduced stress levels, blood pressure, and heart rate(2). The authors stated, “These findings show that viewing or walking around a forest environment for a 15 minute session of forest therapy induces a state of physiological relaxation.”
Pretty cool, right? But what if you don't have access to nature? The review found that seeing odorless roses, gardens, or common houseplants reduced stress by triggering the parasympathetic nervous system i.e. the relaxation system. Also, the smell of essential oils from roses and orange zest can induce a state of relaxation(2). So, if you don’t have the time to walk in nature, you can still reap the benefits through a home environment.
Why is nature so effective at healing the body?
The authors make the point that humans have evolved and adapted to live in a natural environment. Our ancestors spent the majority of their time in nature. Humans have spent 99.99% of our species history in a natural environment versus an artificial one(2).
“The gap between natural settings, to which our physiological functions are best adapted, and the highly urbanized and artificial environment that we inhabit is a contributing cause of the “stress state” in modern people (2),” stated Chorong Song, lead author of the paper.
I couldn’t agree more. In my opinion, chronic stress is the main factor behind weight gain, depression, and disease. I see it in my clients who struggle to lose weight. They consume less calories than they need, exercise daily, but still can’t lose weight. I believe it is due to the constant stress they experience.
Let’s face it, we are on 24/7, be it looking at our phones or watching television, we hardly ever relax. It is time we submerge ourselves into nature and take a break. I have experienced these benefits firsthand and am a firm believer in the stress reducing effects of nature. Find the time to go on a hike or take a walk in a park, trust me, it will make you feel better.