Mindfulness on a forest walk can boost one’s health: Local study

Participants of the Nature and Mindful Awareness Study, which found walking mindfully in a forest can improve one’s mental, physical and social health, on a morning walk at the Singapore Botanic Gardens. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

Walking mindfully in the forest can improve one's mental, physical and social health, as some seniors in a recent study found.

The Nature and Mindful Awareness Study, a 10-week qualitative study led by prominent psychiatrist Kua Ee Heok, gathered 20 participants with a mean age of 65.5 for Saturday morning walks in green spaces such as the Singapore Botanic Gardens.

The study ended in 2019, but its members continue to walk together every week, often staying for chats over coffee afterwards.

Such group walks can make people more appreciative of nature, as well as foster social connectedness, which is "protective against anxiety and depression", says participant Vincent Chong, 67, who is a visiting consultant at the National University Hospital.

The study was supported by the National University Health System and NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine's Mind Science Centre.

Housewife Wee Geok Hua, 67, who leads the group on the hourlong walks, says such sessions encourage people to focus on the here and now.

"Most of the time when we walk, we will either be plugged into our mobile phones or chatting with a friend. Sometimes when you've finished, you can't even remember the route you have taken.

"When you do mindful walking, you want to bring your focus to whatever is happening in the present," she says.

Mrs Wee, who compares mindfulness practice to a "mental gym", says: "You are simply being aware. We try not to validate whether an experience is good or bad. The sound coming from a car is neither good nor bad. You are just listening to what it is."

There is nothing religious about the way the group practises mindful walking, even though mindfulness has roots in Buddhist philosophy, she adds.

Studies have shown that mindfulness offers a host of benefits, not least helping people cope with conditions such as depression, anxiety and chronic pain.

Next year, Prof Kua and his colleagues will mount a 10-year longitudinal study of the impact of nature and mindful awareness on university students.

The Therapeutic Rainforest study, as it is called, is distinct from forest bathing and will take students on guided mindful walks in the rainforest around Kent Ridge Park for 10 weeks, before maintaining contact with them over the ensuing years. A pilot study will kick off later this year.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 30, 2021, with the headline Mindfulness on a forest walk can boost one’s health: Local study . Subscribe