The benefits of a walk outside include improved mood, self-awareness, emotional processing and regulation, attentiveness, and sense of well-being, as well as decreased feelings of stress and anxiety.
More often than not, I find myself asking my patients to do things (have tests, take medication or undergo treatments) that I have never personally experienced.
I feel most comfortable and engaged when I am counseling my patients to do things to enhance their health that I myself have done and benefited from, like taking a walk in the woods.
For me, taking a walk in the woods is a form of meditation.
Simply by paying attention to the feel of the ground with each step, or the sound of birdsong around me, or the feel of a soft breeze against my skin, or even the sensation of thirst or fatigue as they develop, I am practicing mindfulness. The benefits of mindfulness are myriad and include improved mood, self-awareness, emotional processing and regulation, attentiveness, and sense of well-being as well as decreased feelings of stress and anxiety.
In my clinician role, these benefits often translate to me being more present, available, and connected to my patients as I am better able to manage the many internal distractions that are common on most busy clinic days. Because I do not find myself in the woods as much as I would like, I try to maintain a regular meditation practice and use a smart phone app for convenience.
Given my own experience with mindfulness and the evidence base supporting its benefits, I often find myself “prescribing” some form of mindfulness for my patients, many of whom suffer from anxiety and depression, chronic pain, poor sleep, and social isolation. Additional benefits of meditation compared to other therapies are its lack of adverse effects, drug interactions, and low cost.
Mindfulness does require effort and practice and traditional forms of meditation are not for everyone. But everyone can practice paying attention anywhere and at any time simply by for example, noticing their breath or by taking a walk in the woods. Interestingly and perhaps not surprisingly, there is an emerging literature on the health benefits of being in the woods. I can’t but think most of these benefits are attributable to the practice of mindfulness.
So the next time you reach for the prescription pad consider prescribing a walk in the woods, urban park, or simply down any sidewalk on a sunny day.