With people now able to travel freely in Victoria, many will take the opportunity to go out into regional areas of the state or simply be more connected with nature by spending more time outdoors near their house. So what are the physical and mental benefits of doing this?
Author: VicHealth works with health promotion experts to create a Victoria where everyone can enjoy better health and wellbeing.
Any coronavirus information mentioned is accurate at the time this article was first published (13 November 2020). For the most up-to-date information about coronavirus restrictions, please visit the source: www.coronavirus.vic.gov.au
With travel restrictions now lifted, now is the perfect time to visit parks or forests, go on bushwalks or even travel into regional areas. Often people do this for exercise or simply because they feel better mentally or physically in that environment.
So is there some science to this feeling of positivity and calmness we feel by being in nature?
So what exactly is nature bathing?
No we’re not talking about taking a bath outdoors. Nature or forest bathing is spending time in nature and really taking in the sights, smells, sounds and sensations around you. It could be birdwatching in a rainforest, feeling the sand between your toes at the beach or just sitting in a park.
VicHealth CEO Dr Sandro Demaio spoke to Raf Epstein on ABC Radio Melbourne earlier this week about the benefits of making time to go outside and be in nature. Click here to watch.
What are the scientific benefits of being in nature?
For many people, particularly in Melbourne, spending time outdoors has been an essential part of getting through lockdown.
And with travel restrictions lifted, Victorians can now take the opportunity to enjoy some of the natural wonder Victoria has to offer. And there are lots of benefits with scientific grounding.
“There’s a Japanese tradition called shirin-yoku [forest bathing], which is actually a form of eco-therapy, it’s a whole area of science,” Sandro said.
“Many of us know that it’s healthy to be out in nature, that we come back feeling relaxed, we get a bit of sunshine and vitamin D. Certainly this year more than ever it’s been critical to spend time outside.”
Sandro said spending time outdoors in green spaces such as parks or reserves has a significant bearing on the lowering of stress in our body.
“Time outside decreases our stress levels; it decreases our cortisol levels. It’s shown to increase your memory, your mood and even your immune function – likely all through the mediator of stress,” he explained
“Stress hormones affect every part of our body and our brain, our sleep, our mood, our blood pressure and our risk of illnesses like heart disease and diabetes. So, if you can do things to reduce your stress it has really positive impacts on almost every aspect of your body and your health.”
So science explains some of the benefits, but are there others?
Although science can account for the physical and some of the mental benefits we get from being immersed in nature, does it explain all of them? Sandro doesn’t believe so.
“A lot of it is physiology, it is how that environment affects your body and as I said a lot of it is mediated through stress,” Sandro said.
“[But] there are certainly some intangibles and science can’t explain all of the benefits you get from being in nature. Part of it is the magic of just being in green space, being outside, breathing fresh air in your lungs and having sun on your skin.”
Why being outdoors mattered during coronavirus
Although lockdown did limit the amount of time we were able to spend outside, Sandro says people in Melbourne made the most of the time they had.
“We’ve seen huge increases in mobility data showing Victorians, and Melburnians in particular, are spending a lot more time in their local parks and green spaces,” he said.
“There was a big study done last year with 20,000 people which showed definitively that your mental and physical health benefit enormously from 2 hours per week of being in nature.”
“So there are some really great benefits to be gained from spending a little bit of time outside in fresh air.”
Tips for making the most of getting outside and ‘nature bathing’
Reconnect with different environments. Perhaps through lockdown you lived too far away from beaches or forests to visit them. Now is a great time to venture into different environments which may vary from your local park or reserve.
Switch off. Spending time in nature is a great way of disconnecting from the outside world, so turn your phone off if you can to more fully connect with the natural world.
There are lots of different bushwalks within driving distance from Melbourne which make great day trips. A list of day hikes near Melbourne will help get your started.
Consider supporting bushfire affected communities. Some regional towns are still feeling the effects of the bushfires from last summer, so consider travelling to these areas to not only take in the natural regeneration of the area, but also support Victorian communities and local economies.
Remember some coronavirus (COVID-19) restrictions still apply! Physical distancing from others, wearing a mask and not gathering in more than groups of ten outside are all still in place, regardless of where you live in Victoria.