With shorter days and cooler weather, autumn brings a welcome opportunity to spend more time outdoors before the winter months arrive. Whilst we prep our Sussex homes for the months ahead, we can take a valuable lesson from the gardening calendar. Autumn is an important time for preparing and re-planting before the warm soil fades; sowing spring bulbs for new growth next year. So, should we also take stock of our own health and wellbeing too, exploring the value nature offers to us this season?
One increasingly popular way to reap the benefits of being in nature is forest bathing, or enjoying a rejuvenating walk in the woods. This article explores what forest bathing is and some of the incredible health benefits and enjoyable experiences that come from an autumn walk in woodland.
What is ‘forest bathing’?
Forest bathing, also known as shinrin-yoku, is the practice of immersing yourself in nature by mindfully walking and breathing in the sights, sounds and smells of a natural forest environment. The term was first coined in Japan in the 1980s and ever since, research has shown that forest bathing improves both your physical and mental wellbeing.
Today, forest bathing is popular on a global level, and although more research is needed, evidence continues to suggest that time spent immersed in forests or walking in woods is therapeutic for your mind, body and soul.
Nature’s own prescription for health and wellbeing
Forest bathing and walking, as a natural prescription for wellbeing, allows you to spend time in the great outdoors and benefit from reduced stress, improved mood, lower heart rate and blood pressure, together with an overall boost to your immune system. The practice has similarly been shown to produce both psychological and physiological benefits. The natural sights, sounds and smells of the forest engage our senses in a way that induces a state of calm and mental benefits. These are valuably supported by renowned national therapeutic organisations and charities.
Psychologically, the removal of distractions from being in a forest and woodland setting can encourage you to focus on your natural surroundings that, in turn, promotes mindfulness. Mindfulness is a powerful technique that helps you to achieve peace of mind and improves wellness. It allows your mind to reset and to become fully present in one's self. If you’re in a forest, such awareness of your surroundings can reinforce the positive feelings that come from being immersed in nature, decreasing feelings of stress, anxiety, depression and irritability. The serene forest environment also boosts energy, motivation, and feelings of vitality.
Physiologically, breathing in the chemicals released by trees called phytoncides causes a decrease in stress hormones like cortisol and an increase in natural killer cells that strengthen immunity. Forest air also contains high levels of negative ions that promote feelings of vitality. The sights and sounds of flowing water and rustling leaves have been shown to reduce heart rate and blood pressure. The natural setting fosters deeper breathing which increases oxygen circulation throughout the body.
Overall, the sights, sounds, smells and air quality found in forests combine to shift our minds into a meditative and mindful state. You’ll respond with a lowered heart rate, deeper breathing and a boosted immune function.
Why an autumn walk in the woods is so special
Autumn enhances the experience of forest bathing and is arguably the best season to walk in woods for a number of reasons. One of the most spectacular sights is the changing colours of the leaves which create a visually stunning landscape for you to marvel at. The beauty of the autumn colour palette is something that people enjoy with fond memory over their lifetime.
Meanwhile, the crunch of falling leaves underfoot merging with the changing hues of autumnal colours creates an enriching sensory experience. Following an unusually hot September in the UK, the cooler temperatures lend themselves to a slow and relaxed walk which encourages beneficial deeper breathing.
What you can expect to see in a woodland
There are many Sussex locations to enjoy the full splendour of an autumn woodland walk, such as the ever popular Sheffield Park. The rich colours on display are thanks to trees like oak, beech and birch displaying hues spanning yellow, orange, red and brown. These stunning leaves result in a vibrant tapestry overhead and then in late autumn, the falling leaves lead to that known crunching sound underfoot, perfect for walking through.
The cool weather triggers birds to migrate south earlier in autumn and if you look up, you might be lucky enough to spot flocks of swallows, martins, swifts and warblers passing overhead. Listen for seasonal bird calls from robins, tits, finches and thrushes. Late evening walks offer glimpses of nocturnal mammals like hedgehogs, bats and owls as well.
Autumn is also the prime feeding time for badgers, foxes, squirrels and deer too. There’s even a good chance you’ll spot rabbits and their holes. For those familiar with the inspiring stories of Beatrix Potter, the woods bring an enchanting world inhabited by woodland characters to life. Our own dear Ashdown Forest, brings further childhood tales alive of Winnie the Pooh and friends.
You might also enjoy watching woodland creatures foraging for their own food and darting amidst the undergrowth and foliage. If you’re keen on foraging, the forests and autumn woods are a great place to visit. The fall in temperature invites fungi and mushrooms to emerge too. Common edible varieties found in UK woodlands include puffballs, chanterelles, and the iconic red-and-white fly agaric toadstools. Keep an eye out for rare black truffles and porcini too. Nuts like acorns, chestnuts, and hazelnuts are also bountiful under the trees and bushes.
Experience the magic of an autumn forest
Autumn presents the perfect opportunity to try forest bathing and experience the many wellness benefits of immersing oneself in nature. The colours of the changing leaves create visually stunning scenery that instantly promotes feelings of awe and tranquillity. Crunchy leaves underfoot and the musty smells of decaying wood fill our senses. Cooler temperatures encourage slower walking and deeper breathing.
Mindfully walking and breathing in this incredible environment is a memorable experience and provides the perfect setting for forest bathing. From the sights, sounds and smells that engage your senses or shift your mood to powerful psychological and physiological benefits.
As summer fades into the distance, look forward to a revitalising walk in your nearest forest and enjoy everything a woodland wonderland in autumn has to offer.