Most of us are well aware that a walk in the woods is a breath of fresh air; especially if you’re stressed out from big city life or the artificial glow of computer screens. But now in a growing trend, people are heading to the woods to experience nature in a completely different way. It’s called forest bathing.
In Japan where the idea originated, forest bathing is known as Shinrin-yoku and it’s been shown to reduce stress, increase resistance to disease and promote well-being. No, people aren’t taking an actual bath in the woods, but they are engaging in something equally immersive. They are walking in the woods for the sole purpose of improving their health, following designated therapeutic ‘routes’, while tuning their minds into the colors, scents, sounds and feel of the forest.
Forest bathing has been a part of Japanese culture for years. And following a decade of official practice, it is now attracting attention worldwide. Currently, Shinrin-yoku (roughly translated as ‘taking in the atmosphere of the forest’) is gaining in popularity not only in Asia but in Europe, Scandinavia and America as well.
Why the trend? Because research shows there are measurable benefits to regular exposure to forest environments. In fact, just a few minutes spent walking in parks or green spaces can boost levels of energy and drive down everyday feelings of stress and anxiety.
Bamboo forest in Kyoto, Japan
Back in 1982, the Japanese were already aware of the harmful effects stress can have on the body. With job-related pressures on the rise, the Forest Agency of Japan began promoting forest bathing trips as part of a healthy lifestyle. Although forest recreation was a long-established form of relaxation, this was the first time the practice had been prescribed specifically to manage stress.
And, while no one could pinpoint exactly how it happened, more and more people were starting to report a positive therapeutic effect.
The science behind forest bathing
Researchers already knew that forest environments could have a profound effect on humans via their senses. As pleasant sensory experiences traveled to the brain, they interacted in positive ways with the part of the brain that controlled emotions and physiology. Scientists hypothesized that there might be a quantifiable link between forest bathing and a subsequent improvement in these functions.
The soothing sounds of a forest stream
So in 2005, in an effort to better understand the longterm effects of forest bathing on people’s health, the Forest Agency instituted the Therapeutic Effects of Forests Plan. The goal was to discover what, if any, physiological benefits resulted from sending people into nature, specifically, forests, as a therapeutic practice. The scientific investigation, which wrapped up in 2014, uncovered some surprising information.
To better understand the effects of an individual’s exposure to a forest or its components (such as streams, blossoms or wood), the researchers conducted experiments using 456 subjects and 38 forests over a period of four years. Subjects were randomly divided into two groups and were given identical single rooms as lodgings and identical meals and water to control for background environmental conditions.
On the first day of each experiment, half of the subjects took a walk in a forest or wooded area for a few hours, while the other half spent an equal time walking in the city. On the second day, the groups switched places. Scientists measured their subjects’ salivary cortisol, blood pressure, pulse rate and heart rate variability before breakfast and both before and after walking to see if there were any measurable effects.
Phytoncides emitted by trees can improve human health, too
The studies revealed some interesting dynamics. Compared to the city walkers, those individuals who spent time in the woods had significantly lower concentrations of cortisol, as well as lower pulse and blood pressure rates. Their sympathetic nerve activity (which activates the fight or light responses) was also reduced. Most significantly, exposure to phytoncides (aromatic chemicals or oils emitted by plants and trees to protect themselves from insects and disease) had a lasting impact on peoples’ immune systems, boosting their natural killer cells and anticancer proteins by an astonishing 40 percent.
As a result of this study, forest bathing has now become an integral part of preventative medicine in Japan; so widespread that a quarter of the population is reported to be practicing it on over 55 official Forest Therapy Trails. Some Japanese companies are even starting to include forest therapy in their healthcare benefits, offering wellness check-ups in the woods as a part of a new ‘nature prescription.’
Forest and humans : We’re in this together
Humans have been getting ‘in touch’ with nature for ages and almost no one would dispute the natural world’s beneficiary effect. While this is the first scientific evidence of forests’ positive impact on humans, some people point to the human evolutionary process itself as proof that nature and humans have always had a deep-seated connection. They note that until recently, most of the 5 million years of our existence has been lived in the natural environment.
Consider this: If human physiological functions were designed for living in nature, then life in modern, artificial environments must by definition be innately stressful. Immersing the body in nature puts it back where it was meant to be.
Nuuksio National Park, Finland
The Master Samurai Spain, who has led studies on Shinrin-yoku in Andalusian forests for the past 10 years, agrees. He believes the root of the problem is that human beings are not adapted to live in hostile environments such as cities. As a result, those suffering from modern-day stresses and anxiety have weakened immune systems that cause them to become sick. Forest bathing allows the body to absorb beneficial compounds associated with millions of years of plant growth. This helps it fortify its defenses.
Trees aren’t just about good looks
Trees aren’t just beautiful, they provide shade that cools our homes and bodies. Like all plants, they perform photosynthesis, converting sunlight into food for insects, wildlife and people. They also act as nature’s water filters, drawing on the dense communities of microbes surrounding their roots to clean water in exchange for nutrients. And their leaves filter air pollution on a grand scale, too.
Trees provide wood for our fires and building materials for our furniture and homes. They stabilize our planet’s soil. And their soothing sounds, pungent smells and visual stimuli have calmed our anxious minds for centuries. Now comes the first scientific proof of what we’ve innately known all along. Forest bathing may be the cure for what ails us.
Intrigued by the idea? Spafinder.com is a great resource for places offering the practice.