The benefits of spending time in nature are well documented – and a slow walk in the woods could be the best way to improve wellbeing, says Penny Bunting
Being outside, as numerous studies have shown, is good for us. The benefits of having access to green spaces are well documented. For example, hospital patients display faster recovery times if they have a view of trees from their window; and regular contact with the natural environment can reduce the risk of heart disease and obesity.
Of all the natural environments, woods and forests are perhaps the most effective for improving wellbeing. Taking a walk in a wood increases heart rate and floods the body with endorphins – feel-good chemicals that can boost mood, whilst reducing stress and anxiety.
A brisk walk several times a week is one of the best ways to improve physical health and fitness. But slowing down has its advantages too. Stopping for a while to be mindful of your surroundings and take in small details can be meditative, allowing you to be in the moment and calm your mind.
In Japan, people have been aware of this for decades. Shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, is a popular Japanese therapy that was developed in the 1980s.
Rold Skov, Denmark
Birch forest, Pyhä, Finland
And in Finland, forests play a key role in active lifestyles, with whole families heading out to the woods to forage for berries in summer, or enjoy the spectacular colours of the autumn ruska.
Forests are beautiful in any season. Spring sees new leaves budding on trees, and the uplifting melodies of birdsong. In summer, the sun casts dappled light onto the forest floor, and walkers can find a cooler route along shady woodland paths.
Even with kids in tow, you can spend a few calm and mindful minutes in the woods. In fact, children are often better at taking in the detail of the natural world than adults – searching for conkers and crunching through fallen leaves are classic childhood activities that people of all ages can benefit from.
So, if you fancy a spot of forest bathing – wherever you are in the world, and whether you're walking alone or out with the whole family – here are a few ways you can really appreciate our wonderful woodlands.
In autumn, woodlands are a riot of colour, with leaves turning red, gold and brown. In the UK, field maple, beech and silver birch, in particular, produce colourful autumn displays. And in the USA, visitors flock to Vermont and other states in New England to enjoy the autumn foliage displays created by maple trees.
In winter, the forms of bare branches against a blue sky are particularly beautiful. At this time of year, the bark on tree trunks becomes more noticeable, and birds are easy to spot in the leafless branches.
Look for different textures on the forest floor
Pause for a moment to explore with your fingers, as well as with your eyes. Feel the smoothness of an acorn, holding it in your hand for a moment and appreciating that, in the right conditions, this tiny seed could turn into a towering tree. Look too for spiky beech nut cases, rough fir cones and springy moss. And if you're walking with children, make a game of it! Ask them to find something that's rough, spongy, damp, prickly – or any other adjective you can think of to describe the natural treasures on the forest floor.
Notice tree trunks
Pay attention to the different textures and colours of bark that surrounds you. Birch trees are especially beautiful – with their pale, papery bark, they can appear to shimmer. Beech trees have a smooth bark with a grey or greenish colour, while a mature oak tree will have rough and cracked bark – sometimes with wide fissures that create homes for invertebrates such as ladybirds.
Bare branches against a winter sky
A tiny oak tree growing in the forest
Find a tree to connect with
Look around at the trees. Which one are you drawn to? Walk over to it and place your hands on its trunk. Look up into its branches and watch the play of sunlight through the leaves, noticing how the light subtly alters the shades and colours of each leaf. Look down and imagine the tree's roots spreading deep into the soil – and feel that connection with the earth through your hands.
If you have children with you (or try this with a friend or partner!) tell them to close their eyes tightly. Choose a tree and steer them gently towards it, making sure they don't trip. Ask them to explore the tree with their hands, taking note of the texture of the bark and any knots or branches on the tree trunk's surface. Then take them back to the starting point, turn them around a few times and ask them to open their eyes. Can they find the tree they were just touching?
Silver birch bark
A path through Sherwood Forest, Nottinghamshire, UK
Find fascinating fungi
In autumn and winter, woodlands are full of all sorts of mushrooms and toadstools – you'll find a wide variety of sizes, structures and textures if you look closely. Fly agaric is easy to spot and instantly recognizable – with their bright red and white spotted caps, they look like they've come straight from the pages of a fairy tale book.
Also look for bracket fungi on tree trunks, and tiny, intricate toadstools hidden in the leaf litter. However, it's important not to gather wild mushrooms unless you know exactly what you're picking. Although lovely to look at, lots of fungi – including fly agaric – are poisonous, and some can be fatal.
Stop and listen
In the UK, birdsong is probably at its loudest during May, at the peak of the dawn chorus. But head to the woods at any time of year and you'll be rewarded with a free concert by our woodland birds.
In autumn, many birds are busy defending their territories – the clear songs of robins and blackbirds are particularly melodic. In winter, chaffinches are one of the most commonly spotted woodland birds – listen out for their loud, tuneful trills. You may also hear a nuthatch – they have a distinctive call consisting of three or four long, loud whistles.
Listen out for, and try to distinguish between, all the different calls you can hear – and keep an ear out for other woodland sounds too: the patter of falling leaves, the wind in the branches, the rustling of a creature in the undergrowth, or the bubbling of a nearby stream.
Did you know? A single tree can absorb 10 pounds of air pollutants a year? So each native tree we plant – and each established tree we protect and value – is good for our own health, as well as for wildlife, biodiversity, and tackling climate change.
Stanton Moor, Peak District, UK
Green Adventures February 2020
Fly agaric; bracket fungi
Pause for a moment to look up at the sky through the leaves
5 ways to enjoy a walk in the woods