Hidden health benefits await you in the woods
Slow down and appreciate nature for proven relaxation
When I was growing up, my parents loved to take walks at a local nature reserve on weekends. We would walk on the winding trails through the rolling wooded terrain. The trails also passed by lakes and marshes. I did not enjoy taking nature walks at all. When I complained that I was bored, my parents assured me that when I grew up, I would come to enjoy it. As is often the case, my parents were right.
As an adult, I go for a walk several days a week. My lack of a sense of direction and rainy Pacific Northwest climate prevents me from taking all my walks in nature. Typically, I just walk in my neighborhood.
But I what I truly enjoy is taking walks in the woods or a forest among the trees, especially the tall Douglas Firs. The experience is further enhanced if there is a lake, a waterfall, or river nearby. I enjoy the beautiful scenery and the calm atmosphere. I breathe in the clean, fresh air. I find the woods therapeutic. These walks help me to feel a connection to the planet and free from stress.
As it turns out, scientists in Japan have proven that walks in the woods are indeed therapeutic.
Have you heard of shinrin-yoku? 森林浴
Shinrin-yoku is a Japanese phrase that translates literally as “forest bathing.” In English, shinrin-yoku is better known as forest therapy. The Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries coined the phrase in 1982. It was part of their effort to promote visiting forests as a form of stress management.
I can understand why Japan is at the forefront of forest therapy. I lived in Kobe, Japan for eight years. Living in an urban jungle can be overwhelming and stressful. I tried hiking several times in Japan in the Rokko mountain range behind Kobe. After huffing and puffing my way up the trail, I was devastated to reach the highest points only to find myself looking down on massive urban sprawl.
Shinrin-yoku is a contemplative walk through the forest without a goal or specific destination in mind. You visit the forest to relax and reap the benefits of being in nature. In short, forest bathing has been scientifically proven to provide physical and mental relaxation.
Japanese scientists have conducted research to study the health benefits of shinrin-yoku. The agency that came up with the concept in 1982 conducted studies from 2004–2006. They found that forest bathing has many benefits including:
- Reduces stress by lowering the concentration of cortisol in saliva
- Reduces blood pressure
- Lowers heart rate
- Reduces prefrontal cerebral activity
If you stop to take in a deep breath, you will benefit from several hidden benefits in the forest air. Phytoncides, wood-derived essential oils, in the air strengthen our immune system. Phytoncides provide the aroma of the forest. Think of them as natural aromatherapy. You find phytoncides such as alpha-pinene in oils of coniferous trees, especially pine trees. You will also breathe in beneficial bacteria.
Negatively-charged ions, ions with an extra electron attached, have a pronounced antidepressant effect. You find them in the forest or near sources of flowing water such as waterfalls, rivers, and the ocean. If you can forest bathe in a location with flowing water, you will derive even more benefit.
Where will you go for your first experience of shinrin-yoku?
It’s time to try it for yourself. Before you start, take a moment to check in with yourself. How do you feel physically and mentally?
Remind yourself that your goal is relaxation. As you walk, slow way down. Remember this is not a hike. Meander. If you find a location that speaks to you, sit or stay in one spot for most of the time. Pause in one location for at least five minutes at least once. Observe your surroundings with all your senses except taste unless you know the item isn’t poisonous. In a two hour walk, you will probably cover less than a mile.
After you walk, do everything you can to maintain the sense of relaxation you achieved for as long as possible.Time for a nature fix
I recently read The Nature Fix by Florence Williams and realized that our connection to nature is more important than I had previously realized. Some of the many benefits to spending time in nature mentioned in the book include improved mood and inspired creativity.
The book addressed work being done around the world to offer people those benefits. Not surprisingly, the book visited Japan and looked at shinrin-yoku.
One of the efforts that intrigued me the most was the concept of biophilic cities. City planners around the world are making an effort to create cities that put nature at the core of their design and planning. Perhaps the concept intrigued me because I grew up in a rural “New Town” known as Chaska, Minnesota that had the same goal? Or because I discovered that nearby Portland, Oregon is a biophilic city. Want to see if you live in a biophilic city? Check this list of partner cities.
After reading her book, I agreed with her conclusion that time in nature is not a luxury, but a necessity. In the epilogue, Florence Williams summarized her findings and suggestions for us all.
Distilling what I learned, I came up with a kind of ultra simple code: Go outside, often, sometimes in wild places. Bring friends or not. Breathe.
Nature pyramid: Recommended menu for getting the nature humans need
In The Nature Fix, the concept that resonated most deeply with me was the idea of the nature pyramid. Academics at the University of Virginia created a nature pyramid modeled after the familiar nutrition pyramid. To see a visual of the nature pyramid, check out this article on exploring the nature pyramid.
Daily: Make an effort to get small does of nature every day. What nature can you experience in your neighborhood? How about birds in trees, pets, house plants, daylight, or fresh air? Can you listen to fountains or see naturalistic landscapes? When near nature, look at the fractal patterns.
Weekly: On a weekly basis, head to a bigger city park, to the water, or to regional park for at least one hour. Let the hassles of urban or suburban living recede.
Monthly: For your immune system, take a more extended excursion to a forest or another nature area. Maybe this could be your chance to try shinrin-yoku?
Yearly or biyearly: Seek out intense multi-day does of nature like camping, hiking, or backpacking trips. Or a retreat in a natural setting. I’ll admit that this recommendation is hardest for me. I grew up with parents who loved to camp. I did not, and do not, feel the same way about camping. Every summer for years we would head to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness where we had numerous adventures.
How will you get your nature fix?