It’s not just in your head. It’s been scientifically proven that nature is good for your mental health. A 2015 study published in the U.S. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that a ninety-minute walk in a natural setting has measurable mental health benefits. In the study, nature walks were shown to reduce “rumination” (thinking repeatedly about negative aspects of yourself) and brain scans showed less activity in a part of the brain associated with mental illness. Walking in an urban setting, by comparison, showed no such effects.
Rouge National Urban Park has partnered with Scarborough Health Network in Toronto to offer Mood Walks to young adults (16-35) who are experiencing mental health challenges. The walks take place every three weeks from May to November and continue monthly from December to April.
Created by the Canadian Mental Health Association (Ontario), Rouge Park’s Mood Walks program has several lessons on how to maximize the therapeutic benefits of nature.
Because of the location of Rouge National Urban Park, the Mood Walks make use of the Rouge River, Little Rouge Creek, and Highland Creek for excursions. Access to water plays a key role in the walks’ therapeutic benefits. Increasingly, researchers have found that access to water, or what’s frequently called “blue” spaces, play a vital role in enhancing psychological well-being.
Here are some ideas for how to leverage your ravine and park spaces to maximize their capacity to enhance participants’ mental health.
Set A Mental Health Intention
Before setting out on a nature walk of any kind, Jessica Yau, a Partnering and Engagement Officer at Rouge National Urban Park, asks participants to answer three questions:
- How happy are you right now?
- How anxious are you right now?
- How much energy do you have right now?
After the walks, participants are asked to respond to the same set of questions.
Invariably, people are happier, less anxious, and more energetic after the walks. But, asking these questions serves a higher purpose of having people be intentional about using the walks to lift their mood.
You can use other questions to set the tone of the walk such as:
- What are you most looking forward to today’s walk?
- How can this walk best serve you today?
It can be surprising, and wonderful to debrief about how the walk was able to impact one’s mood. Jessica recalls asking participants to share the best part of the walk.
One participant said “I liked not talking to anyone” while another responded, “we spotted the most beautiful woodpecker.” While nature tends to lift the spirits of participants, it does so differently for different people.
Create a Walk Experience
On one hand, as Jessica puts it, “nature is itself.” In other words, simply spending time in nature enhances one’s mental health. There are, however, opportunities to build in facilitation to maximize the walks’ impact.
First, Jessica emphasizes, it’s helpful to encourage participants to get to know one another before the walk begins. By bonding first, participants can use the walk to chat or share meaningful experiences. Of course, it’s vital to recognize that not everyone cares to socialize during the walk and that’s okay too.
Also, Jessica emphasizes the value of creating themed walks such as fall colours, forest bathing, salmon walk, or pollinators. The themes give people a clear idea of what to expect and give them something to look forward to.
Jessica shared how subject-matter experts and passionate facilitators can help create meaningful interactions with nature. During one pollinator walk in Toronto’s Rosetta McClain Gardens, a facilitator highlighted that while monarch and viceroy butterflies are nearly identical, the body of a monarch butterfly contains chemicals that make it taste bad—so bad that a bird may even vomit if it eats one.
To bring this concept to life, the facilitator walk leader baked butterfly-shaped cookies. Half of the cookies were loaded with salt while the others tasted delicious. When participants went to eat the cookies they learned a valuable, and memorable lesson about the difference between monarchs and viceroys. It’s a lesson the participants will not soon forget.
When planning any walk, be sure to consider topics such as participants’ walking pace, the route, and other key factors that are covered in Park People’s resource on planning park walks.
Plan for the Weather
When winter arrives, moods can drop along with the temperatures. But, Rouge National Urban Park and Scarborough Health Network continue their walks, even during inclement weather. There’s something about not just braving the elements but embracing them that lifts our spirits.
Jessica described one Mood Walk where the plan was to go snowshoeing but, the weather was too rainy and then icy. Instead of snowshoeing, they went “boot skating” and joyfully slid along the trails instead. The unpredictable nature of weather requires a certain amount of agility in planning. Use that to your advantage.
To make inclement weather more comfortable, Rouge National Urban Park and Scarborough Health Network worked together to establish a library of winter clothing that is housed at the hospital. That way, various sizes of coats, boots, hats, mitts are always available.
Be Guided by Nature
Jessica notes natural forms can provide built-in challenges for participants to take on at their own pace. For example, in Morningside Park, there’s a moderately sloped hill that leads to a beautiful lookout point. The hill is a manageable challenge for participants. When planning a walk, note the physical features that can offer meaningful and challenging experiences.
Ravines have a multitude of physical features, most notably water, which has a multitude of therapeutic properties.
Research shows that “water bodies score just as well – if not better – in supporting psychological well-being as compared with “green” nature.”
Consider how you can use beachfront space, the sounds of water, and water as a source of play and curiosity in your walks.
InTO the Ravines, a program in partnership with the City of Toronto