En español | Head into the woods and your body begins to change within minutes: your blood pressure drops, your heart rate slows, and your mood likely starts to lift. Regular immersions in nature, a stack of studies confirms, can also lower stress hormone levels, reduce depression, allow for better sleep, foster creativity, and make people more kind and less aggressive — among other wondrous feats.
The Japanese take such benefits seriously — they call it shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing — using contemplative nature immersion as a form of therapy. The practice has also taken off in the U.S., where you can hire one of a growing number of forest bathing guides to lead you on reverent woodsy excursions. Or you might give yourself your own nature bath by taking a relaxing walk in the park. Or by gardening. Or by spending 15 minutes sitting under a tree in your backyard, listening to the birds.
We know instinctively that these activities often brighten our mood and chill us out, but the association between time spent in natural settings and better mental health is also supported by reams of research. A sampling: In one British survey, people who had spent 120 minutes in nature over the previous week were significantly more likely to report good health and well-being than those who had no nature exposure — “including older adults and those with long-term health issues,” according to the 2019 study, published in Scientific Reports. And an analysis from Britain's University of East Anglia of more than 140 studies from around the world found that “exposure to greenspace significantly reduces people's levels of salivary cortisol — a physiological marker of stress” — not to mention that it also appears to reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and premature death, according to the 2018 report, published in the journal Environmental Research.
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In Britain, doctors at the National Health Service routinely prescribe time in nature to their patients. Sue Stuart-Smith, a British psychiatrist and author of the 2020 book The Well-Gardened Mind: The Restorative Power of Nature, is one. She'll tell her patients to “take as much exercise as possible, but always take it in a green setting if they can,” she says. “It's immediate; within minutes of being within a green setting, [they'll have] a lowering blood pressure.”
In other words, you don't need to camp out in the middle of the woods for a week to benefit from Mother Nature. “If people can get out in their lunch breaks, that makes a huge difference,” says Stuart-Smith.
It's more important than ever in the modern era, when many of us are spending hours a day inside, in front of screens, says Emma Seppala, author of 2016's The Happiness Track and an expert on health psychology. “We're depriving ourselves of this free resource that brings out the best in us."
More tips for finding calm in nature:
Get off the clock
"The most important thing is to go into nature without time pressure,” says Peter Wohlleben, German author of the upcoming book The Heartbeat of Trees: Embracing Our Ancient Bond With Forests and Nature. “Most of the time we have some kind of work schedule in our mind, just like in everyday life: a certain number of miles should be hiked in a set time. But why not just sit under a tree for an hour?” And certainly put your phone away, or at least in airplane mode, says Susan Madden, a forest bathing guide and meditation teacher near California's Yosemite National Park who takes small groups ($35 per person) into the surrounding area for guided nature immersions that conclude with a quiet cup of tea by a creek or stream “because water has its own healing property."
Don't have a goal or feel you need to “achieve” something
Before you begin, “just set the intention of being open to whatever the experience may bring,” says Madden. “Have no expectations, no preconceived notions. Just let it unfold."
Use all your senses
Begin by feeling the air on your skin, Wohlleben suggests. Then, what can you smell? Do you hear squirrels rustling leaves? Can you see insects if you look at the trunk of tree? Then sit, “shut your eyes, and feel that this is a place where you belong.” You may want to walk slowly, and see what you notice along the way, says Madden, who takes her groups on “very slow, mindful walks — maybe a quarter-mile or a half-mile in an hour or so."
Just sitting quietly in a beautiful garden is a salve on its own, but there are myriad benefits to the act of gardening, too, says Stuart-Smith. For just one: She says that caring for plants is a nurturing activity, and that “nurturing activities are associated with release of endorphins, our natural opioids, as well as oxytocin, sometimes called the bonding hormone — and both of these have positive effects on our mental health.” Gardening also offers some of the calming effects of meditation, she adds, “when you're weeding, for example, or sowing seeds ... because you're fully present to what you're doing.” If starting a garden from scratch seems intimidating, she suggests beginning with something simple, like sunflowers. “You sow your seeds, they germinate reliably and quickly, and they'll grow,” she says. “I love them."
Bring nature indoors
Architects have begun to incorporate natural elements — what's known as biophilic design — in senior living facilities. Aegis Living Bellevue Overlake, an assisted living facility in Bellevue, Washington, opened last month with plants and blooming life everywhere: a glass solarium in the lobby, six-foot palms, a koi pond and lots of outdoor spaces to promote serenity. The healing effect of plants is real, insists Aegis Living's CEO Dwayne Clark: “People actually get sick less,” he says, pointing to studies that have shown that even just having plants in patients’ hospital rooms can result in better health outcomes. Businesses are incorporating abundant greenery into their office plans as well. Amazon's massive headquarters in Seattle, known as The Spheres, opened in 2018 with glass-enclosed biodomes holding some 40,000 plants, meant to inspire creativity in its employees.
Even just having more green — the color — indoors has been shown to lessen anxiety, likely because we associate it with nature. (Some have surmised that this calming effect is why actors have traditionally had “green rooms” to wait in before performing.)
Physical activity is known to be a stress-reducer, but studies have shown that it's even more so when done outside in a natural setting.
Books on nature's power to calm and inspire
The Well-Gardened Mind: The Restorative Power of Nature by Sue Stuart-Smith
This 2020 book (now out in paperback) by a British psychiatrist offers a beautifully articulated argument for the benefits of gardens and gardening — and nature in general — on physical and mental health.
Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest by Suzanne Simard
Simard, an expert on plant communication and intelligence, dives deep into the unique vitality and interconnectedness of trees, which she says have “conversations” through “a cryptic underground fungal network.” It was released this month and is already a New York Times bestseller.
The Heartbeat of Trees: Embracing Our Ancient Bond With Forests and Nature by Peter Wohlleben
Coming in June, this scientific paean to trees by German forester Wohlleben (author of 2016's The Hidden Life of Trees) explores what he describes as the profound connection between humans and the forest, and how the disruptions of modern life that create barriers between us and nature are harmful to both.
The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier and More Creative by Florence Williams
Williams, a journalist who traveled the world to investigate the science behind nature's effects on the human brain, describes her discoveries in this lively 2017 book. She includes loads of evidence that connecting with the natural world is a key to our well-being.
Christina Ianzito is the travel and books editor for aarp.org and AARP The Magazine, and also edits and writes health, entertainment and other stories for aarp.org. She received a 2020 Lowell Thomas Award for travel writing.