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The New 10,000 Steps

Feel like your mental wellness is flagging? Developing scientific research suggests forest bathing can help

Shaun Francis (left) with his son, Will, on an expedition to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.

Shaun Francis (left) with his son, Will, on an expedition to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.

As I write this piece, the province has just announced new measures to relieve pressure on intensive-care units inundated by third-wave variant cases. The news is disheartening at a point when we all hoped the vaccines would have sprung us from restrictions. Mental wellness is suffering. “Lockdown, shutdown, meltdown, breakdown,” tweeted The Globe and Mail reporter Dave McGinn, summing up the sentiment.

If there’s any solace to be had, it comes in the form of the third wave’s timing. Spring supplies a therapeutic release—one that wasn’t so easy during the winter: Getting outdoors to spend time connecting with nature.

From reduced anxiety to lower blood pressure, the mental and physical effects of outside time are being recognized by a developing body of scientific research, to the extent that adherents of pandemic restrictions are qualifying their shelter-in-place edicts. “Outdoor activities should be encouraged as much as possible,” suggested infectious-disease specialist Dr. Isaac Bogoch in one news report.

I agree. The Japanese have a term that describes the practice of venturing out into nature to enjoy its therapeutic effects. They call it shinrin-yoku. Translated into English, the phrase means “forest bath.” I love that image. It evokes an immersion into a world of plants and animals, rejuvenating one’s ability to connect with an external environment, encouraging a mindful awareness of one’s own existence that spawns all sorts of stress-relieving benefits. “Shinrin-yoku is like a bridge,” writes the Japanese physician Qing Li, author of a book about the practice. “By opening our senses, it bridges the gap between us and the natural world.”

That “forest bathing” emerged from Japanese culture is no surprise. The island nation has some of the world’s most densely populated urban environments. The city of Tokyo alone has about the same population as all of Canada. Japan was home to the first “forest therapy” centre, and medical programs in “forest medicine.”

The practice has now emigrated from Japan. “Forest bathing has become a global trend as a reaction to the current flood of stimuli and the hectic daily life in our modern society,” wrote one February 2021 academic article—to the extent that Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Germany have all created programs to encourage their citizens to partake in the “cure and healing” power of natural environments.

As a society, we need the therapeutic benefits of the outdoors more than ever before. Pandemic restrictions mean many of us are spending our days in back-to-back video calls and our nights watching other screens, streaming the latest shows or scrolling through social media. “Never have we been so far from merging with the natural world and so divorced from nature,” observed Qing Li—and that was in an article published before the pandemic. Pre-COVID, the average American spent 93 percent of his time indoors, the scientist writes. The figure in both the U.S. and Canada has likely inched up during one of the most difficult winters we’ve ever experienced.

But now we’re through winter, the weather is warming and it’s more important than ever to use all the levers available to shore up one’s mental and physical wellness. “The pandemic, and the restrictions, are taking a toll on our mental wellness as a society,” reports Dr. Jack Muskat, Medcan’s psychology team lead. “Regularly seeking time outdoors is an important self-care strategy.”

I look forward to a day of eased restrictions, when Medcan can renew its Kickstart programs of adventure travel to places like Patagonia and Mt. Kilimanjaro. The charitable foundation that I chair, True Patriot Love, is planning a therapeutic expedition this summer through Algonquin Park that pairs military servicemembers and veterans with healthcare workers.

Until travel restrictions ease, we’re going to have to practice forest bathing closer to home. How, specifically, does one do that? Borrowing from Qing Li’s direction here, it’s pretty simple. Close your laptop computer and set aside your phone or tablet. Head to your nearest natural environment—the more distant from the city’s hustle, the better. On a work day, maybe you can get to the closest park or ravine trail. On the weekend, try for a walk in the Greenbelt or on the Niagara escarpment.

Once you’re there, pause to take in the moment. Breathe deeply. Smell the air. Feel the wind and the sun on your face. Observe the play of light among tree leaves, and hear the birdsong and the whisper of air flowing past nearby plants. Once you start moving, try to maintain this posture of observation. “Now you have connected with nature,” writes Qing Li. “You have crossed the bridge to happiness.”

Restrictions and the demands of work require us to spend much of our time indoors. But for the sake of your own mental and physical wellness, I encourage you to try to make time to get outside. Writing recently about research that two hours a week in nature provides tangible wellness benefits, a Wall Street Journal article asked, “for better health during the pandemic, is two hours outdoors the new 10,000 steps?” To me, the answer is an unequivocal yes. And if you can manage more than two hours a week—all the better.

Shaun Francis is the CEO and chair of Medcan. In the latest episode of Medcan’s Eat Move Think podcast, check out Shaun’s inspirational interview with the explorer Ray Zahab, who ran across the Sahara Desert, has traversed Baffin Island nine times and whose pandemic-endurance strategy involves as much time outdoors as possible.

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