In most cases Nature Therapy Activities are experiences where humans intentionally go outdoors so that they can be surrounded by – well – nature! Lots of people express their desire to be one with the environment in an effort to reap positive mental and physical health benefits. In many circles the term Nature Therapy Activities are becoming “buzzwords” in our society as the next BIG thing to help reduce stress and raise overall wellness. But the reality is that Nature Therapy Activities have been around for millennia. For tens of thousands of years, humans have lived and worked closely connected to the earth. It has only been in the last few hundred years, a blink of an eye in terms of human history on earth, that we have begun to retreat indoors and become disconnected from the land.
Unfortunately that seems to be the direction things are headed in the United States, however, that is not necessarily the case in many other countries around the world. For example, in Norway there is a word in common usage, Friluftsliv. The word means outdoors, and it captures the essence of the Norwegian way of life, and the culture’s connection with nature. Norway is often listed as one of the happiest countries on earth, according to United Nation rankings. One of the reasons for this may be that they exemplify the spirit of Friluftsliv by balancing work indoors in an office with lots and lots of outdoor activities and time with nature.
In this article, we will discuss some of the benefits of Nature Therapy activities, and how Nature Therapy Activities can potentially reduce anxiety and pain, and increase overall happiness! We will explore some of the more popular Nature Therapy Activities ranging from Animal Therapy to Horticulture Therapy, from a simple meditation sitting among trees to Green Gyms to Forest Therapy Walks with a trained Forest Therapy Guide.
The Benefits of Nature Therapy
Just looking at nature can be soothing to the soul. One study of office workers in the United States showed that workers that just had a view of the outdoors, or even photographs of nature to look at during work hours actually had less stress and were more productive than their counterparts that were in offices or cubicles without any view of nature.
The beneficial effects of nature can result not only from what we see but from what we experience through our other senses as well. For example, in one recent study, participants were able to recover more quickly from mental stress when they listened to the sounds of nature, such as moving water or birds singing than when they listed to man made sounds, such as the noise of a busy street or loud music. In another study, when patients in a hospital just breathed in the fragrance of natural food and fruit fragrances, it reduced their feelings of depression.
One of the earliest studies of the use of nature to reduce physical and mental distress was conducted on patients who had recently undergone heart surgery. The patients in the study were in intensive care, yet were able to significantly reduce their anxiety and their need for any medication for their pain, simply by viewing pictures of nature, such as photographs of trees and bodies of water. Even something as simple as having some plants and flowers added to a work environment has been shown to positively affect the productivity of the workers, increase their creativity and enhance their problem solving skills.
Research has also found that nature can have a positive effect on children. Specifically nature Impacts the ability for young children to pay attention for longer periods (stay in the moment!) as well as increase their patience level as it relates for a need for instant gratification. These positive effects were found in children who lived in areas that had green spaces by the houses or high rise buildings where they lived. Children who did not have access to trees or a green space, and were simply surrounded by concrete, did not enjoy such profound mental and emotional benefits.
The examples above show that simply being exposed to nature, or being able to view nature without any interactions can have a positive effect on mood and physical health. Imagine the benefits if one were to deliberately, purposefully and regularly interact with nature. This can happen with any of the numerous Nature Therapy Activities available. Some of the more popular are described below. For some of them, such as meditating in nature, benefits could be derived even without a trained facilitator for the activity. For others, the benefits from activities such as Forest Bathing Walks can only be fully realized with a trained Forest Bathing Guide.
The first two Nature Therapy Activities we will discuss, Animal Assistance and Horticulture Therapy, are often grouped together under the broader umbrella term of Nature Therapy Activities. While they have been found to have enormous benefit, strictly speaking, they don’t necessitate actually going outside the house and into nature. The other Nature Therapy Activities that will be described, Nature Meditation, Green Gym and Forest Bathing Walks are designed to get right out into the middle of nature.
Who doesn’t like a playful puppy or an adorable kitten? Just holding one can be calming for the spirit. For this reason, animals have been used to help with the healing process, and has been shown to help reduce symptoms of aggression and agitation, depression, anxiety, drug addiction and even schizophrenia. When using animals to assist in therapy, the patient is allowed to interact with one or more animals during their therapy. Playing with animals, such as dogs or cats, can help the healing process of patients of any age. In one study, struggling readers gained confidence in their reading when given a pet to read aloud to, as it gave them an opportunity to practice to a listener they know would not judge them for their reading ability. Unconditional love! Generally speaking, most of the studies done on Animal Assisted Therapy have been done with dogs, but the positive health benefits have also been observed in research using dolphins, cats, even guinea pigs!
Although including Animal Assisted Therapy on a list of Nature Therapy Activities might be a stretch for some readers, Horticulture Therapy is certainly a great fit! Simply bringing plants and flowers into the work environment can be beneficial to the soul, but going outdoors and interacting directly with nature is the best. Horticulture Therapy basically includes any outdoor activity that involves plants. Digging in soil, planting seeds, trimming trees, even weeding flower beds are all activities that have been found to have a positive effect. Horticulture Therapy has been used with a variety of different types of groups, including Veterans suffering from PTSD, or individuals that may be suffering from substance abuse, job stress or burnout. This type of nature therapy activity has also been shown to be a wonderful tool for older adults in an effort to combat their feeling of social isolation.
Nature Meditation is just like it sounds: the action of meditating in a natural setting. Nature Meditation can be done by an individual, or in some cases it is conducted in a group setting. The benefits of meditation are well documented, and a growing body of research is indicating that doing an activity, such as meditation or even going for a walk, has a greater positive impact if done in nature. For example in a recent study done with patients diagnosed with depression individuals were asked to go for a walk. 71% of those in the study that walked on a trail out in nature reported having reduced feelings of depression. The other group in the study were also asked to walk, but instead of walking outside, they walked for the same amount of time indoors in a mall. Only 45% of the members in that group reported feeling less depressed. The research seems to indicate that the more access to nature one has, the greater the benefits. Combining meditation with the healing effects of nature appears to greatly enhance ones overall feelings of happiness.
Physical exercise, similar to meditation, can help regulate anxiety and depression. If you combine physical exercise with the healing power of nature even more benefits are possible! The concept of Green Gyms is somewhat self-explanatory. Imagine that you are working out, but instead of being inside a gym with filtered air, the sounds of exercise machines, breathing in the smells of disinfectant and sweat, you are doing an exercise class in the middle of the forest. You are surrounded by the sweet smells of pine trees, the gentle breeze peeking through the leaves, and experiencing the gentle, ancient connection to mother nature. Going to a Green Gym can be invigorating and stimulating to your body, and uplifting for your spirit!
Forest Bathing Walks
One of the most popular, and innovative, Nature Therapy Activities is the practice of Forest Bathing. Forest bathing (also referred to as Forest Therapy) comes from the Japanese term, Shinrin-yoku. The phrase simply means “taking in the forest atmosphere” while using all of your senses. The technique of forest bathing was developed in Japan in the 1980s and has become common in Japanese medicine for preventive health care and healing. There is a growing body of scientific literature on the health benefits of time spent immersed in a living forest. Research (primarily from scientists in Japan and South Korea) has led to the steady growth of Shinrin-yoku or “Forest Bathing” throughout the world. For example, In China, Forest Bathing is called Sēnlínyù, which is Mandarin for “tree bathing.” In China, the process is very relaxed – they say that any activity that takes place in a green space, or forest or even a city park that involves just sitting, relaxing and being with nature qualifies for tree bathing.
Forest Bathing following the Japanese model is a more formal process. A typical Forest Bathing walk takes place under the guidance and direction of a trained Forest Bathing/Therapy guide. This guide takes a group of people on a very deliberate walk, usually lasting 2-3 hours, with regular stops throughout the walk. During these stops, the guide facilitates various experiences (referred to as invitations), such as meditation, exploration and sensory activities designed to maximize the participants ability to appreciate their surrounding “nature” atmosphere. Forest Bathing walks have been shown to deliver extremely positive mental and physical health benefits, even after a short two hour experience.
Clearly Nature Therapy Activities can be really simple to do, such as meditating in a designated green space or in your backyard. Research shows that we can all to reap more benefits if we just change the location from an indoor activity, such as working out in the gym, and take the activity outdoors. Nature Therapy Activities can be a bit more formalized, like experiencing nature through a Forest Bathing walk with a trained Forest Bathing Guide or a more DIY outing like taking a stroll at your own pace through your local park. All of the activities described in this article have been shown to help the healing process, and can have numerous physical and mental health benefits. These positive outcomes might include decreased anxiety, depression, stress and blood pressure, and increased energy, immune system and overall happiness. So why not give it a try!