The benefits of spending time outside in natural places—in the woods, on the beach, along a lake shore or river bank—are becoming clearer: improved health and a sense of well-being. A 2019 study published in the journal Nature Research found that spending two hours in nature each week is associated with better health and well-being.
One great way to get the benefits of being outdoors is mindful walking. A recent survey of 25 scientific studies on the topic found consistent support for the idea that practicing mindfulness in natural settings amplifies the physical and emotional benefits people experience. And that insight has driven new interest in activities, such as mindfulness walks offered by local organizations, including the Coalition.
“It’s undeniable how just being in fresh air, just being in nature, can shift our perspective,” said Jessica Webb, a certified mindfulness and meditation teacher. “The benefits of mindfulness to our health are numerous: they include better sleep, reducing blood pressure, lowering our heart rate and elevating our mood.”
The beauty of a mindfulness walk, she said, is that it can be done in any reserve or park, whether it be a place near your home or your favorite location (you can find lots of great places for a mindfulness walk at DiscoverBuzzardsBay.org). The key is approaching the activity in the right frame of mind, using all of your senses—sight, smell, hearing, touch, and taste—to notice how you are feeling and what is happening around you.
“The difference between our usual walk in nature and a mindful walk in nature is that there’s no agenda when we go out for a mindful walk except that we want to pay attention to the physicality of the experience, using all our senses,” Webb said. “What’s the experience of being in nature at that particular moment?”
Perhaps best of all, Webb says, the core of mindfulness is simply a state of attention that is always within reach. “Mindfulness is always available; we just forget about it because we’re so busy making shopping lists or thinking about the thing we need to do tomorrow,” she said, adding that the more often it’s practiced, the better an individual becomes at achieving mindfulness. “Every time you practice it, you are building up your mindfulness muscle.”
Download this guide from Jessica Webb with tips for practicing a mindful walk.
Maureen Hall, a professor in the STEM Education and Teacher Development Department at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, agrees. In fact, Hall talks with her students—practicing teachers who are pursuing graduate education—about how they might use mindfulness in their elementary and middle school classrooms.Those who try it out find that it can be beneficial for students.
“Students like it,” she said. “When kids get a little older, and they are moving from class to class, it can be very helpful in getting them focused after a transition to a new class.” The teachers find it helpful in cultivating the patience for managing classrooms, too, she added.
And Éowyn Ahlstrom, who teaches at the Mindfulness Center at Brown University, noted that a mindfulness walk need not mean a long walk: “One way of doing this for anyone is to simply spend some short amount of time looking at and hearing and seeing and smelling the natural environment and allowing the mind to wonder about all of the connections among us and the environment in which we are in.”
While it might sound trendy, mindfulness practice has a long history in human cultures around the globe, Ahlstrom said, citing Classical traditions in Greece and Rome as well as those of us indigenous peoples in North America and Australia. “It might be extra important that people in our time and place practice awareness of nature, awareness of the environment, because we’re so conditioned to think of ourselves as separate from nature.”
Some researchers who study mindfulness believe that the practice might be beneficial not only for humans but also for the rest of the natural world, including Damian Ewens, founder of the Ocean State of Mind, a mindfulness-based ocean science and research initiative supporting ocean conservation and human health.
“At the Ocean State of Mind project, we talk about looking at the big challenges in our world: one is that we’ve somehow come to believe that we are disconnected from nature,” he said. “That has created a whole bunch of problems.”
“What we’re seeing now is a lot of fairly recent science looking at the health benefits of being out in nature and one of the many benefits of mindfulness is its ability to help us remember the human-nature connection,” said Ewens, who also teaches a mindfulness-based stress reduction course at College Unbound, a local college for working adults. “We can help people strengthen their connection to nature through mindfulness and that could shift behavior.
“You protect what you love,” he said.