Eight ways to turn a walk through the forest into a wellness immersion

Nov 20, 2023 | News

Ellen Devine took a walk during one of the many Covid-19 locksdowns in the UK. It may not sound like much, but it was one of only a few outdoor activities that the public could participate in for 60 minutes each day.

A simple chalkboard sign with a handwritten message caught her attention as she walked through Westonbirt Arboretum, Gloucestershire. Devine recalls that it had a message that was “an invitation to be kind to ourselves, take care of ourselves, and realize that others care.”

“That message meant a great deal to me at that time,” says Devine. Devine is the wellbeing project manager for Forestry England. Forestry England manages 1,500 public owned forests in England. As I continued to walk through the forest, I wondered, “I wonder if I can develop something similar?”

“I wonder if I can develop something similar?”

The Forestry England team is hoping that the new trails will increase access to green space. Their wellbeing trails will be launched in 18 forests in England in autumn 2023, with funding from the National Lottery and support from Sport England. These forests range from Ennerdale Forest in the Lake District all the way to Mamhead Forest in South Devon. The trails, which range from a half-mile to a maximum distance of three miles, highlight mindful activities that will help visitors get the most out of their walk. The routes are accompanied by a free forest wellbeing journal that can be downloaded. It includes easy-to follow tips based on scientific studies.

Forestry England hopes that the new trails will encourage people to visit forests. It is particularly interested in attracting people of color and those with diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, as research shows that they have a limited access to green space. According to data from the Campaign to Protect Rural England, only 1% of national park visitors in England are from Black, Asian or Ethnic minorities, compared to 14% of England’s population.

Forestry England has inspired eight ways to transform a woodland walk into an immersive experience for wellbeing.

1. Take your time and don’t just rush past.

Collier advises, “Just take a moment to pause.” Take it all in and let your senses soak up what’s around you. Sitting, perhaps leaning against a tree and breathing in the scents, relaxing your shoulders… allowing yourself to really slow down to appreciate what’s around. .”

Researchers have found that the practice, based on the Japanese art form of Shinrin yoku or forest-bathing helps increase positive emotions, connection with nature and lower blood pressure, while also lowering mood disturbances and blood pressure.

Take time for yourself Relax and connect with the forest by following one of Forestry England’s wellbeing trails.

2. Repeated patterns are a good thing to notice (your brain will thank us).

Have you ever looked at a real pine cone? It’s an example of fractals. Devine describes them as patterns that repeat on ferns and leaves, or tree bark.

“They’re very pleasing to our minds”, she explains, “helping to reduce mental fatigue and lowering stress levels.” 

3. Have you ever thanked a plant? Try it

The work for the wellbeing trail also drew upon the work of Professor Miles Richardson who teaches at the University of Derby about nature connectedness. His research showed that an appreciation of the beauty of nature was linked to positive feelings and compassion towards the natural world.

4. Be Playful

“It is about having an exploratory mindset, being open to seeing what you see,” says Collier. He advises, “bringing your inner-child along, with a playful sense of playfulness.”

For Liz Burfield a forest bathing expert who walked a wellbeing trail in Salcey Forest outside Northampton the highlights included “seeing a tiny but bright orange Stagshorn fungus hiding behind a broken branch, and smelling onion-y scented leafs.”

5. Share your experience and ask questions

Use your time in the woods to reflect, collect your thoughts and share them with your family and friends.

Burfield says that the clues along the trail were crucial. They were very helpful and sparked some interesting conversations. I think that we all felt more relaxed, connected, and engaged by the end of our walk .”

Forests are a great place to gather your thoughts, and share them with family and friends.

6. Seek out awe and feel part of a huge thing

You’ll soon feel something extraordinary if you become an active participant in nature. It could be as simple as being a part of nature or the way humans have interacted with it for centuries.

Collier explains that “you don’t need to bring anything in the space” and “that’s deeply affecting.” To think that our ancestors spent millennia living in a way that was deeply immersed in nature. They probably couldn’t have imagined not being in a naturally setting .”

A free forest wellbeing journal will help you to follow all the routes.

7. Watch for mindful movements in the forest

Devine encourages walkers also to notice the small movement within green spaces. These are often in direct contrast with the harsh and sterile environment of cities.

8. Find peace in the smallest pleasures

The wellbeing journal suggests that you follow the forest’s example on joy – recognizing that, like the changing of the seasons, nothing is permanent; everything happens at its own pace.

Devine concludes, “I think that sometimes, when you’re going through a tough time, it can seem like everything is hopeless.” Instead of searching for a perfect life where everything is sorted, find those little glimmers in every day that bring you joy or hope .”

Main Image: Harry Lawlor

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