Jackie attended the annual Illinois Master Naturalist’s conference last week, and came away with any number of interesting tidbits, but one in particular stuck with me: Forest bathing is like ergonomics.

Both Jackie and I have had our understanding of ergonomics informed by Katy Bowman, who points out:

Modern ergonomics is not the scientific pursuit of what is best for the human body, but the scientific pursuit of how the human body can be positioned (in one position, for eight or more hours at a time) for the purpose of returning to work the next day, and then the next and the next and the next.

Don’t Just Sit There by Katy Bowman; excerpt.

What Jackie learned at her conference was that the Japanese concept of forest bathing (shinrin-yoku) has roots in the same idea. When Japanese salarymen started dying from overwork, a lack of exposure to nature was put forward as a partial explanation.

If the problem is a lack of exposure to nature, then immersing yourself in nature is an obvious solution. But, of course, actually immersing yourself in nature would take too much time out of the workday. Hence the research into forest bathing is all about finding the minimum effective dose. There is little or no research into figuring out the optimum time for humans to spend in nature.

Keep that in mind when you read yet another article about how just looking at a forest scene for 20 minutes reduces salivary cortisol 13.4%, or walking in the woods for just 40 minutes improves mood and boosts feelings of health and robustness.

I’m not so much interested in the answer to the question, “What’s the least number of minutes I can spend in nature and not die early from overwork?”

I’m more interested in questions like:

  • If I go for a walk in the prairie, is that as good as going for a walk in the woods? Do I get added benefits if I divide my time between them?
  • Is doing my workout under a tree in a nicely mowed lawn as good as doing it in the woods?
  • Is running past a cornfield or soybean field nearly as good as running down a forest path? How about running past a row of osage orange trees? A suburban lawn? Between two suburban lawns on the other sides of 6-foot privacy fences?
  • If I can’t get to an actual natural area, how should I choose among possibilities like a park, an arboretum, a formal garden, a managed forest, or an unmanaged thicket? How do various water features (lake, stream, creek, natural pond, detention pond, drainage ditch, etc.) affect the benefits?
  • Is just sitting on a concrete patio outdoors better than sitting indoors?

I have my own tentative answers to many of these questions, but very little data.

Happily, except for playgrounds, outdoor public spaces are still open where I live.

The outdoors and sunshine are such strong factors in fighting viral infections that a 2009 study of the extraordinary success of outdoor hospitals during the 1918 influenza epidemic suggested that during the next pandemic (I guess this one!) we should encourage “the public to spend as much time outdoors as possible,” as a public-health measure.

Source: Closing the Parks Is Ineffective Pandemic Theater – The Atlantic

I find it super easy to spend time outdoors in the summer. Anytime the weather is nice, I’ll almost automatically get out for at least a couple of hours per day. I’m a lot less motivated to do so when it’s cold or wet. This post is largely here to help me remember how nice it is to get outside, even when the weather isn’t so pleasant.

How nice is it? Really, really nice. And yet, I forget, so I end up having to manipulate myself into getting outside in the winter.

I find it easy to manipulate myself with perceived health benefits, such as the well-documented benefits of spending time in nature. I’d find the self-manipulation thing even easier if we knew a bit more about what the “active ingredients” are with regard to time in nature.

Maybe it’s visual. Does the appearance of leaves and trees have some effect on the brain? (I have my own theory that dappled shade has soothing effects on the brain due to our evolution as forest-edge animals.)

Maybe it’s chemical. Trees release all sorts of chemicals into the air, as do bacteria and fungi that live in the soil. I imagine that these are reduced during the winter when the trees are dormant and the soil is covered with snow, but I don’t know of any relevant data.

Besides health benefits, the main ways I motivate myself is either by finding a way to perceive the activity as enjoyable (as being outside on a nice summer day) or else to find a way to smugly perceive the activity as so unpleasant that lesser beings could not bestir themselves to get out in such wretched weather. (One of my mottos: If the weather can’t be good, it should at least be bad enough to be interesting.)

One practical idea I used today: In winter the sunrise is late enough to not have to get up early to get see it. Take advantage of that. See the dawn. Watch the sun rise. Then go back inside where it’s warm.

About 12 minutes before sunrise

Since reading a couple of weeks ago about the importance of blue places for both physical and mental health, I’ve been trying to spend a little more time near water, and to pay attention when I’m there.

Today Jackie and I took a short walk along the little creek that runs just south of Winfield Village. It’s really a spectacular amenity that I don’t appreciate nearly as much as I should. (I spend a lot of time admiring our little prairie and our little woods, but I mostly just cross the creek itself with scant notice—nowhere near what it deserves.)

Perhaps you can help me catch up on appreciating our creek. Is it not admirable?

It got me some vitamin W for the water and some vitamin N for the nature, but sadly no vitamin D. The vitamin D window has closed, and won’t open again for 57 days.