The Longevity Project, Part 2: Mindful time in green spaces improves mental, physical health
Standing in a forest or sitting on a rock on the edge of a river can fight cancer and improve your health. While simplified, it’s true.
In recent years, research has shown that simply spending time in green spaces improves concentration, lowers stress levels and improves mood and outlook. Moving and burning calories isn’t necessary to reap the benefits of the trees.
In Japan, there is a practice called shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing. “Bathing” in nature is experiencing one’s surroundings through their senses. It’s not hiking, just spending time in a forest or meadow or on a river bank and simply being.
“A lot of forest bathing is like a walking meditation, often with a guide,” said Mary O’Brien, a senior naturalist with Yampatika. “The guide will talk to you about using all your senses and being present with what is, not what you need to get done in the next hour. Sometimes, it’s just sitting, being aware of what’s around you, watching the bees on the flowers — and through all that, it’s a really amazing way to lower blood pressure, stress levels. Those go down when you’re just being out there.”
What: The Longevity Project Live Event
The Longevity Project is an annual campaign to help educate readers about what it takes to live a long, fulfilling life in the Yampa Valley. This year’s project will focus on the critical and relevant topic of mental health. Join us Sept. 22 for presentations from keynote speaker Kevin Hines and Mindy Marriott, executive director of REPS (Reaching Everyone Preventing Suicide) in Steamboat Springs.
When: 6- p.m. Sept. 22
Where: Colorado Mountain College Steamboat Springs, 1275 Crawford Ave.
More info: Visit SteamboatPilot.com/longevity
A Japanese study showed that men who spent hours in a forest field three days in a row showed increased activity in white blood cells that have the ability to kill tumor or virus-infected cells. Additionally, the practice has been shown to decrease pulse rate and improve mood.
University of Chicago psychologist Marc Berman found in a 2019 study that those who listened to nature performed better on demanding cognitive tests than those who listened to urban sounds like cars and voices.
O’Brien seeks out time to forest bathe when she can. She wanted to share Forest Bathing with the Yampa Valley, but finding a place nearby that is quiet enough was a challenge. O’Brien would also have to get certified.
The Association of Nature and Forest Therapy is the largest forest bathing guide community and certifies official forest bathing guides who can lead intentional walks equipped with nature connectivity tools.
People can forest bathe on their own or find a similar experience in guided time in the forest. Yampatika leads guided walks, snowshoes and even ski tours year round.
“I do notice when I’m hiking with a group of people, after an hour or so, I’ll see a little change,” O’Brien said. “They’ll be more chatty. You’ll see more smiles. They’ll be more relaxed. Even just being out there, I can see some changes in a group of people.”
Blue spaces, or areas in and around water, haven’t been researched to the same extent, but it’s thought that time spent on a lake or near a river could be even more beneficial than a walk in the woods.
Just being near the color blue is beneficial.
We see colors based on how its specific wavelength reflects off things. Blue’s wavelength is “known to exert a calming, relaxing, yet energizing effect,” according to “Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do,” by Wallace J. Nichols.
The forest or river should never serve as a replacement for therapy or medication, but it can ease the burden of everyday stress and offer a moment of serenity and healing for our mind.
Moving in green spaces
Yoga on the green is the perfect overlap of mindfulness and spending time outdoors. It’s not forest bathing, but participants can have similar benefits. During the warmer months, yoga is held on the green of the Yampa River Botanic Park three times per week.
Upward of 130 people attend the classes that are in their ninth summer of existence.
Participants hear a soft trickle of water, the leaves flitting in the breeze and the nearby ospreys shrieking from their riverside nest.
The sun rises, drying the grass and warming faces as Patty Zimmer guides participants through gentle movements perfect for beginners and seasoned yogis. Zimmer said fellow instructors are always volunteering to teach at the park, as they love it just as much as the participants.
When Zimmer was presented with the idea of hosting yoga in the park, she was elated. She thinks the Botanic Park is one of the most peaceful places in the area.
“Even walking in it has that magical quality and healing quality of calmness and serenity,” she said. “That alone is very healing in itself. We bring our mats out, but we also offer them to sink their feet into the lawn, as well. That connection with the earth is pretty magical. Very healing out there.”
Yoga focuses on breath work, and breathing among trees is much different than breathing in a studio.
“It’s a real exchange of energy with us breathing along with the trees and the plants,” Zimmer said. “Just exchanging that energy is magical. I keep thinking magical. It’s not magical. It’s really (science). As we inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide, the plants take in the carbon dioxide and give us the oxygen. It’s a physical exchange. Anyone who’s taken a hike probably feels that same connection. With the yoga practice in that setting, (it) just makes it that much more. … That connection is really special and healing.”
Exercising outdoors has benefits that are not lost on Yampa Valley residents. Steamboat’s active community ramped up during the pandemic when exercise options were limited to outdoors and people needed a mental health boost. Even without understanding why being outside helped them, people sought green spaces.
There are dozens of correlations between green spaces and positive mental and physical changes. It’s clear nature is linked to these effects, but the specific reason why is still being determined. There are three schools of thought.
Some believe that since our ancestors evolved in the wild, we have an innate response to nature. Another hypothesis suggests that time outside triggers a physiological response to lower stress, while the attention restoration theory proposes that nature restores our cognitive resources and improves ability to concentrate.
A 2008 study had participants take a test that challenged concentration. Then, they took a 50-minute walk in an arboretum or downtown, then took the test again. Scores were higher among those who walked through the green space as opposed to an urban space.
Learning in green spaces
North Routt Community Charter School Outdoor Education and Wellness teacher Wil Chapple tries to build on humans’ intrinsic desire to be outside. Since he started teaching at the school last fall, his physical education classes have all been outdoors.
“I think that being outside brings an enthusiasm to P.E. Instead of being inside in a gym, it’s exponentially better because you’re outside and running around,” Chapple said. “I like the challenges of being outside. There’s something about when it’s snowing out, and there’s 2feet of fresh snow, and you’ve got to go out and play soccer. It’s a great character builder.”
Additionally, the school brings students on adventures every Friday that vary from hiking and biking to skiing in the winter.
“Children’s exposure to natural spaces has been associated with improved cognitive function, stress resilience, coping with negative emotions and imagination and creativity, as well as the accelerated development of motor, communication and decision-making skills,” according to a 2020 report titled “Improving child & adolescent mental health through outdoor programming.”
Children who grow up in urban areas have a higher risk of developing psychiatric disorders. Growing up and spending time in green spaces can reduce this risk.
The North Routt Community Charter School will have a new gym soon, but Chapple thinks he’ll still opt to teach outside.
“That’s something I’ve grappled with,” he said. “I’m sure I’ll be tempted when the weather’s nasty to say, ‘Let’s just stay inside.’ But I really value the challenges and the grit that being outside provides us. I really hope to continue to have a more balanced P.E. class indoors and outdoors but still challenge our students with being outside and providing them with all the benefits of being outside.”
Regardless of age or activity, the decision to spend a few extra minutes outdoors can make a huge difference.
To reach Shelby Reardon, call 970-871-4253, email sreardon@SteamboatPilot.com or follow her on Twitter @ByShelbyReardon.
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