1. What does the researched evidence say?

Indigenous people have been trying to tell settlers/westerners/the rest of us about how a healthy relationship with healthy country makes for healthy people and country. Perhaps it is starting to get through.

The effect of nature-based practices on humans is a growing area of interest for researchers in the fields of psychology, medicine, behavioural science, public health, urban design and environmental planning. So far, the research comes mostly from studies in Northern Hemisphere forests, with Japanese pine forests and Shinrin yoku practices leading the way. I have not yet seen research undertaken in Australia, nor on the specific outcomes of an ANFT-style nature therapy walk, but the anecdotal evidence (for example, here are some comments after walks I’ve guided), combined with the transdisciplinary research into the broader area is compelling.

Below is short summary of research and links to the full peer-reviewed articles underneath in order to whet your appetite:

Individual physiological benefits

  • In multiple studies forest environments have been shown to:

    o increase immune response, including natural killer cell and anti-cancer protein production,

    o decrease physiological markers of stress including by reducing blood pressure, heart rate, stress hormones and favouring parasympathetic nervous system activity

    o increase levels of metabolism-regulating proteins

    o reduce self-reported symptoms of anxiety, depression, anger, fatigue, confusion and increase vigour [Li 2019; Park et al 2010; Hansen et al 2017]

  • Forest walking has been shown to improve sleep in those with sleep complaints [Morita et al. 2011] and spending time in natural environments may improve one’s level of attention to complete cognitive tasks [Ohly et al 2016].

  • Interaction with healthy soil and inhalation of airborne microbes from biodiverse soils has been shown to alter mammalian gut microbiomes and may influence gut and mental health [Liddicoat et al. 2020]

Individual emotional & mental benefits

  • Having a strong relationship with nature or nature connectedness can increase happiness, decrease experiences of negative emotions and increase pro-social and pro-environmental behaviours [Capaldi, et al. 2014; Mayer et al 2009; Richardson et al 2021].

  • Nature connectedness increases resilience in children, but it can be developed at any age [Charles et al. 2018]. It can be inherited genetically, but life experiences have a greater effect on a person’s nature connection [Chang 2022].

  • There is some evidence to suggest that a guided nature therapy experience promotes positive emotions, social bonds and a reduction of negative emotions when compared to a self-guided walk, but a solo walk may induce greater introspection [Jin-Gun 2021].

Community & ecological benefits

  • It has been suggested that components of nature connection are comparable to (non-specific or religious) spirituality [Suganti, 2019], the benefits of which have been linked to decreased total alcohol intake, improved quality of life, and positive psychosocial status [Underwood, 2002].

  • Level of nature connectedness may be more influential than environmental knowledge for predicting environmental behaviours [Otto & Pensini, 2017], and have been correlated with both deliberate and spontaneous pro-environmental behaviours [Geng et al. 2015].

Capaldi, C. A., Dopko, R. L. & Zelenski, J. M. (2014) The relationship between nature connectedness and happiness: a meta-analysis. Front. Psychol., https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00976

Chang C-c, Cox DTC, Fan Q, Nghiem TPL, Tan CLY, Oh RRY, et al. (2022) People’s desire to be in nature and how they experience it are partially heritable. PLoS Biol 20(2): e3001500. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.3001500

Charles, C. et al. (2018) Home to us all: how connecting with nature helps us care for ourselves and the Earth. Minneapolis: Children & Nature Network

Geng, L; Xu, J.; Ye, L; Zhou, W; & Zhou, K. (2015) Connections with nature and environmental behaviours. PLOS ONE. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0127247

Hansen, M. M., Jones, R. Tocchini, K. (2017) Shinrin-Yoku (Forest Bathing) and Nature Therapy: A State-of-the-Art Review. Int J Environ Res Public Health. DOI: 10.3390/ijerph14080851

Jin-Gun K. & Won-Sop S. (2021) Forest Therapy Alone or with a Guide: Is There a Difference between Self-Guided Forest Therapy and Guided Forest Therapy Programs? Int J Environ Res Public Health. DOI: 10.3390/ijerph18136957

Li Q. (2019) Effets des forêts et des bains de forêt (shinrin-yoku) sur la santé humaine : une revue de la littérature [Effect of forest bathing (shinrin-yoku) on human health: A review of the literature]. Sante Publique. In French. DOI: 10.3917/spub.190.0135

Liddicoat C., Sydnor H., Cando-Dumancela C., Dresken R., Liu J., Gellie N.J.C., Mills J.G., Young J.M., Weyrich L.S., Hutchinson M.R, Weinstein P., Breed M.F. (2020). Naturally-diverse airborne environmental microbial exposures modulate the gut microbiome and may provide anxiolytic benefits in mice. Science of The Total Environment. 701, 134684. DOI: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2019.134684.

Mayer F. S., Frantz C. M., Bruehlman-Senecal, E. & Dolliver, K. (2009) Why Is Nature Beneficial?: The Role of Connectedness to Nature. Environment and Behavior, DOI: 10.1177/0013916508319745

Morita, E.; Imai, M.; Okawa, M.; Miyaura, T.; Miyazaki, S. A before and after comparison of the effects of forest walking on the sleep of a community-based sample of people with sleep complaints. Biopsychosoc. Med. 2011, 5, 13.

Ohly H., White M.P., Wheeler B.W. Bethel A., Ukoumunne O.C., Nikolaou V. & Garside R. (2016). Attention Restoration Theory: A systematic review of the attention restoration potential of exposure to natural environments. Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, Part B. 2016;19(7):305-343.

Otto S. & Pensini P. (2017). Nature-based environmental education of children: Environmental knowledge and connectedness to nature, together, are related to ecological behaviour. Global Environmental Change, 47, 88-94.

Park, B. J., Tsunetsugu, Y., Kasetani, T., Kagawa, T., & Miyazaki, Y. (2010). The physiological effects of Shinrin-yoku (taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing): evidence from field experiments in 24 forests across Japan. Environmental health and preventive medicine. DOI: 10.1007/s12199-009-0086-9

Richardson, M., Passmore, H.A., Lumber, R., Thomas, R. and Hunt, A., (2021). Moments, not minutes: The nature-wellbeing relationship. International Journal of Wellbeing. 11(1):8-33 DOI: 10.5502/ijw.v11i1.1267

Suganthi, L. (2019) Ecospirituality: A Scale to Measure an Individual’s Reverential Respect for the Environment. Ecopsychology. Jun 2019.110-122.

Underwood LG, Teresi JA. (2002). The daily spiritual experience scale: development, theoretical description, reliability, exploratory factor analysis, and preliminary construct validity using health-related data. Ann Behav Med. 24(1):22-33.

I also link to articles, podcasts and posters written by scientists, for non-scientists on my blog page.

2. What should we wear for a nature therapy walk?

Comfortable clothing for being outside for the 1.5 - 3 hours session duration. You might like to apply sun cream and insect repellent beforehand. We will be moving quite slowly and not working up a sweat as you might if you were bushwalking. In cold weather, it’s recommended that you bring or wear an additional layer than what you think you’ll need. Snuggly and dry beats damp and nippy every time.

Even in hot weather, I wear long trousers, long sleeves and a hat to protect me from the sun, the mosquitoes, and so that I feel comfortable sitting on the ground, or walking through longer grass.

Once you’ve registered for a walk, you’ll be sent detailed information about where to meet, a weather forecast and what to wear. Walks will go ahead if there’s light rain, but may be cancelled if the weather or location is deemed unsafe.

3. How does an online walk work?

An online or ‘virtual’ nature therapy walk is usually conducted via Zoom and the link will be shared with you via email. You're invited to join from wherever you are, with your device. You’ll join a small group to learn about and hear nature connection suggestions which you’ll be invited to try wherever you are and then rejoin the group to share some of your experience with others, guided in a sequenced program. I recommend that you find a place where you feel safe, comfortable and totally ok to sit and wander slowly, with some elements of nature. This might be

  • In a park, garden, balcony or backyard

  • At home, next to a window/s with a view outside

  • At home, with a collection of indoor plants and/or fruits, vegetables & nuts from your pantry

What to expect: We will spend our time in slow guided playfulness, awakening our senses and noticing nature. At the final part of the walk, we share in a virtual tea ritual. You are invited to bring your own tea and snack.

What to bring / have ready:

  • Your *charged* smartphone or laptop with an internet connection

  • Switch off your notifications and put your phone on 'silent'

  • Organise your day so that you can be in place at the starting time

  • Headphones or earbuds

  • Water

  • A simple snack e.g. fruit and nuts

  • If you are able, it is nice to have tea with me at the end ritual. You might like to have the kettle and cup ready, or bring a thermos on your walk.

What to wear: If you're going to be outside, please check your local weather forecast so that you can be prepared. See ‘What to wear’ question above. You will also be glad that you brought something to sit or lie down on, e.g. towel or picnic blanket

A reminder and useful information about what to expect will be shared with you via email a few days before the walk.

4. Is this some kind of mindfulness/meditation thing?

Somewhat. If you’ve done any mindfulness or meditation before, you’ll probably notice similarities but enjoy the movement and openness. If you haven’t, you won’t learn much about mindfulness or meditation, but you might find it difficult at first to adjust to the slower-than-normal pace. That’s ok! But I encourage you to give it a go anyway, without judgement. You’re not required to sit still for a long time, have your eyes closed or do anything that you would find uncomfortable.

5. Why do I need to register beforehand?

So that we can properly prepare for your joining us, we ask that you register online through the ticketing site, Humanitix. This means we’ll have the right amount of equipment, a good ratio of people and that you have read and understood the terms. It also means that we can send you important information a few days before the event, including the exact meeting point (which can change). And if there’s bad weather, or an emergency, we have each other’s details so we can get in touch.

6. Can anyone do nature therapy?

Yes! Nature therapy is for everyone. The word ‘therapy’ might not be something you’re into. Think of it this way: I’m not a therapist, nature is.

I’m just a guide who will show you how you might relate to nature in a way that can help you process thoughts and emotions. Does anyone go to a shopping centre expecting ‘retail therapy’ to include a therapist? And which do you think you would enjoy more, or get the most from in the moment, and afterwards?

Humans have been spending time in nature and developing a connection with it for the longest time. It’s only in the last few hundred years that we’ve rejected the importance and forgotten how to do it. Since it’s ‘new’ there are a lot of terms being used, each with their own nuance. You can choose your own: nature therapy walks, forest therapy programs, forest bathing events, Shinrin Yoku, nature connectedness wanders, nature wellbeing sessions, outdoor mindfulness picnics …

Wondering if you ‘need’ to do a guided walk? Well, that’s up to you. There is some new evidence to suggest that a guided nature therapy experience promotes positive emotions, social bonds and a reduction of negative emotions when compared to a self-guided walk [4], but both will beneficial.

7. Can I bring my kids?

Yes, if they want to come! Children are (ahem) naturals at nature therapy. They lack the inhibitions about play, exploring and wonder that seem to start growing on us as we become ‘grown-ups’. Nature therapy is also about relationship building, so it’s very rewarding to do it with family members. Because they are active participants in the group, tickets will also need to be purchased for the attending children.

What about my very young children?

Happy or sleeping babies strapped to a parent (or similar) are welcome to join us for free. But if your young child is going to demand a lot of attention in a natural setting (such as a crawler or toddler), they count as a child for ticket purposes. This is because they have the capacity to either be engaged in the activities with us, and/or to detract from other participants’ experience (including your own). If you’re not sure, consider this: please pay and prepare yourself and your children for the experience intentionally as best you can, or organise for someone else to care for the child elsewhere for the session. Or, just wait a little while until all of your family are ready to do it together. There will be future opportunities.

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Buderim, Qld.

This area of the Sunshine Coast (Australia) is the unceded lands of the Gubbi Gubbi/Kabi Kabi language speakers.

May we all tread gently.