Maybe a bath in the park is exactly what you need. No, not the bubbly candlelit kind, but the Japanese forest kind.
It’s called shinrin-yoku — or forest bathing. The Japanese practice involves immersing yourself in the natural world to reap the physical and psychological benefits.
John Muldoon, counsellor at Algonquin College, says forest bathing inspired the creation of Mood Walks, a province-wide initiative led by the Canadian Mental Health Association to improve physical and mental health on campuses by walking in nature.
Students meet at 12:50 p.m. every Wednesday at the biowall on the first-floor of the ACCE building before walking one of five routes directly from campus. The walks generally last one to two hours.
“It’s such a natural way of boosting our overall mood,” he said, referring to how disconnected people have become from our natural environment.
Andrea Prazmowski, a certified Forest Therapy Guide in Ottawa, agrees.
“Indigenous people have been telling us that for a long time and now science is showing that when you do walk like this that the cortisol levels – so levels of the stress hormone – they drop,” she said. “Our blood pressure drops to a healthier level. Our heart and circulatory system are supported. Our immune systems are boosted.
“Even things like thought patterns that are connected with depression – there’s a thought pattern called rumination – those thought patterns decrease when spending time out in nature. So, it helps with anxiety and depression and is an overall mood booster.”
Muldoon tries to pick a different route each time so that returning walkers can have a new experience. He plans to travel with walkers via OC Transpo to a nearby forest where participants can feed Chickadees in the winter months.
The variety also allows students to explore surrounding areas, particularly new students or those living in residence.
“I love to be outside,” said Josée Leclair, a new student in creative writing who lives on campus but hadn’t been to Centrepointe Park across the road.
Muldoon finds that students have been very appreciative of the walks, which began the first week of school. He has students fill in a wellness card before and after the hour-long walk to gauge the effectiveness; finding students generally feel calmer and more content after participating in a walk.
Rachael Bennett, a first-year student in the library technician program and member of the Algonquin health promotions team, finds that the walks clear her head and increase her productivity.
“I’m never going to say no to some time outside,” Bennett said. “I’m thinking about my French midterm right now but I know after I’m going to feel a lot calmer about it.”
Brad Lavoie, another Algonquin student, was looking forward to the walk after learning about the program in his environmental citizenship class. He reported feeling “energized” after walking through the first snowfall of the year, a sign that hockey season was fast-approaching.
Muldoon educates students throughout the walk and suggests they try to avoid worrying about the future or ruminating on things in the past, which cannot be controlled, focusing instead on the present moment and natural surroundings.
It’s called mindfulness and it is a key component of a Mood Walk with Muldoon. He describes it as, “the ability to be so connected in your here and now moment in a non-judgmental way.”
Connected being the keyword, and not to Wi-Fi.
Muldoon offers participants a quick mindfulness exercise to deepen their connection with nature. He says to stop and tune in to your senses; slowly noticing what you see, hear, feel or smell.
According to Muldoon, every little bit helps. He says just one minute of mindfulness a day is enough to cause brain function changes.