Head Outdoors to Restore Your Body and Mind

Photo of a trail on Mt. Rainier by Paul Salemme. Check out more of Paul’s photography here.

One of the best things we can do for our health is to be outside, in nature. Over the last 40 years, multiple studies have been done to research how nature improves our physical health and mental well being.

Many of these studies were done to assess the benefits of Shinrin-yoku, or “Forest Bathing.” Forest Bathing is a Japanese concept created in the 80’s as a marketing term to encourage people to spend time in nature. It means taking in nature through all five senses. Stepping in to a vibrant green northwest forest will spark all of our senses. We can feel the brush of a branch on our skin, touch a dew covered pine needle and run our fingers along the rough bark of a sitka spruce. We can watch the soft movement of the branches as they rise and fall with a gentle breeze, and we can notice the warm green glow of the mosses as the sunlight flickers through the trees. Immersion in a lush forest activates our parasympathetic nervous system, restoring the body to a calm and relaxed state. Scientists have measured lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol in people following a nature walk, and participants reported lower levels of stress and anxiety.

With every breath of an earthy forest mist, we take in phytoncides. These are chemicals produced by plants, and function to fight disease and rot and ward off insects. Studies have shown that breathing in phytoncides increases our white blood cell count, and specifically the number of “Natural Killer” (NK) cells. Our NK white blood cells target and destroy tumors and virus infected cells, so they’re valuable to have in abundance. The forest sounds clear our minds of unnecessary, anxious self talk, and fill it with a symphony of bird songs, the creaks and moans of swaying trees, and the rushing gurgle of creeks and streams.

There are many obstacles along the trail. Roots and rocks often appear along the way, forcing us to shift and balance. Branches seem to reach out to grab an ankle or brush a face. Trails can turn from muddy and mushy to steep and rocky. All of this builds proprioception, our bodies awareness of itself in space. With every step, our awareness builds along with our core and legs. On climbs, when we notice our pounding heart as it fills our cells with oxygen, when we breath in the rich forest air, we can feel the exuberance and joy of life. Looking around, we are reminded that everything is reaching, stretching, fighting for life. There is a symmetry and balance in the chaos of the forest. All these unspoken lessons enter our subconscious, and we leave the trail stronger and more energetic.

With the significant number of local, state and federal parks in Washington, we will certainly be able to find a trail that will be open and uncrowded once the Governor’s “Stay Home” order is lifted. Keeping safe and hiking with preparation is essential. Currently, driving and congregating at trailheads is not advisable. If you are walking distance to a park or local trail, exercise safely. It is advised to hike on simple trails to eliminate unnecessary risks.

For additional information to help you prepare to adhere to social distancing protocols on the trails and have an enjoyable experience, read more here.

By Paul Salemme, PRO Club Personal Trainer.

Paul is a Personal Trainer at PRO Club in Bellevue. He specializes in functional movement training, helping clients build strength, coordination and neuromuscular control. This training develops powerful, athletic bodies, and helps people live an active lifestyle while minimizing injuries.  Paul works with clients to build their intrinsic motivation for exercise and fitness. Learning and growth are an important part of building a functional, balanced body, and his clients develop an understanding and appreciation of their healthy bodies, and become a model of health and wellness for those in their life.  Outside of the gym, Paul is a naturalist, photographer and wilderness guide.

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