Welcome to the woods and a whole new kind of self-care known as ecotherapy. Being in nature helps us feel a greater sense of connection to ourselves and the world around us. Countless scientific studies have underscored the health benefits of getting back to nature. Still, we spend the majority of our time indoors, connected to technology and in environments devoid of natural sunlight and nature’s many healing properties. There’s a real shift toward reconnecting to the elements.
Trends like forest bathing are leading to a marked shift in where and how some of us get proper exercise. Forest bathing refers to a practice that sprung up a few decades back to connect tech-saturated Japanese citizens with the benefits of taking in the cleaner air, scents and sounds associated with the forests. Sometimes paired with meditation practices, “shinrin-yoku” or forest bathing has been shown to alleviate stress and anxiety and increase relaxation. Some studies have even linked the restorative effects of nature to immune function recovery and doctors are increasingly prescribing time in nature alongside traditional medicines.
Marjorie Pomper, a docent at the Chattahoochee Nature Center and member of the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs, leads “gently guided walks where all is by invitation.” A Georgia Master Naturalist, Pomper sees the healing power of nature firsthand every time she heads to the woods with a new group. “You see a change in participants’ faces as they relax and breathe deeply.”
When new forest bathers share one word at the end of their walks, they share words like tranquility, joy, gratitude, love, presence, healing and peace. “All of these words indicate a sense of well-being associated with decreased stress and increased immune function,” says Pomper. “This is the healing power of nature.”
In recent years, Pomper has led walks for the Cancer Support Network affiliated with Northside Hospital and in partnership with the Chattahoochee Nature Center. The fact that forest bathing can lead to improved immune system function is of particular interest and value to cancer patients and survivors. Pomper has seen participants find relief, joy and meaning as they engage their senses and expand their awareness while enjoying quiet time with trees and one another. “Forest bathing participants experience decreased anxiety, stress, depression and pain while improving their overall well-being,” she says.
Nationwide, Walk with a Doc (http://walkwithadoc.org) events and other nature excursions prompted by the real-world health benefits of being in nature are growing at rapid pace. Hiking and other nature-focused gatherings are becoming more popular on platforms like Meetup.com. In Gwinnett, families can get out in nature at one of dozens of local parks. A visit to McDaniel Farm Park transports visitors into a simpler time and provides a place to reconnect with the natural world. Not far from the busy Mall of Georgia, those desiring a break from busy can escape into the 88-acre Mill Creek Nature Preserve, a wetlands and wildlife sanctuary with natural boardwalk pathways and winding wooded trails sure to soothe the heart, mind and soul. Yellow River Park in Gwinnett, Sawnee Mountain near Cumming and Stone Mountain or Arabia Mountain to east of Atlanta are all great possibilities for longer excursions in nature.