A walk in the woods can be a fun way to spend a weekend or holiday, but as it turns out, it may have health benefits that surpass what you expect. In Japan, the practice of shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, is a practice observed by about a quarter of the country.
Dr. Qing Li is considered to be one of the world's foremost experts on shinrin-yoku. He is associate professor in the Department of Hygiene and Public Health at Nippon Medical School in Tokyo and serves as president of the Japanese Society of Forest Medicine and Vice-President and Secretary General of International Society of Nature and Forest Medicine (INFOM).
“In 1982, the Forest Agency of Japan first proposed a new movement called 'forest bathing trip' (shinrin-yoku) to promote a healthy lifestyle," Li explained. "Now it has become a recognized relaxation and stress management activity in Japan.”
A 2007 study by researchers at Kyoto University's Graduate School of Medicine found that “forest environments are advantageous with respect to acute emotions, especially among those experiencing chronic stress. Accordingly, shinrin-yoku may be employed as a stress reduction method, and forest environments can be viewed as therapeutic landscapes.”
Between 2004 and 2006, Japan's Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries studied the therapeutic effects of forests on human health and identified several potentially beneficial effects of walking in nature.
According to those findings, Li says walking in forests (shinrin-yoku) may prevent the onset of chronic illnesses like cancers, reduce blood pressure, heart rate and stress hormones (which may have a preventive effect on hypertension). Li also credits shinrin-yoku with creating calming psychological effects through changes observed in parasympathetic and sympathetic nerves. According to Li, forest bathing appears to increase the level of serum adiponectin--a hormone that in lower concentrations is associated with obesity, type 2 DM (diabetes mellitus), cardiovascular disease, and metabolic syndrome, among other metabolic disorders. Finally the combined study found shinrin-yoku reduces anxiety, depression, anger, fatigue and feelings of emotional confusion.
Another study conducted in Japan by Japan's Ministry of Health and Labour and Welfare in 2010 revealed “the mood of the respondents (hostility, depression, liveliness, and three other positive and negative mood categories) was significantly improved on the day of the forest visit compared to the control day, when the respondents did not visit a forested area.”
This begs the question, can the health benefits of forest bathing be translated to other nations? The 2010 U.S. Census shows that today 81% of Americans live in urban areas. But one-hundred years ago, only about 40% of Americans lived in cities. The 1920 Census was the first to show half of Americans living in an urban setting (at that time, the definition of urban was any palce with more than 2,500 residents).
“Drawing on nature to improve health falls in to the realm of 'holistic or integrative medicine' and is common practice in places like Japan and South Korea," said Mark Ellison, educator, researcher, author and founder of www.hikingresearch.com."The awareness level is not as high in the United States and other countries for how nature can benefit our health.“
Joan Maloof, author of Among the Ancients: Adventures in the Eastern Old-Growth Forests, adds. "Forest walks decrease stress hormones, they reduce blood pressure, they decrease heart rate, they decrease blood sugar levels, and they increase immunity. All good things. We should preserve and protect forests for many reasons -- our health being just one of them.”
And for those suffering from illness, the forests may help with treatment. Blogger John Kerastas, 59, an American from Chicago who is facing treatment for a brain tumor, started to practice shinrin-yoku to help with his condition.
“I was able to spend several days hiking the Coast-to-Crest trail around Ashland, Oregon last winter with my sister and it felt great! I now know why," he said. "My wife and I have a trip scheduled to Yosemite in May, and I can't wait to get far away from city sounds and immerse myself in some shinrin-yoku.”
While the gains for adults are many, there are also notable benefits for children. Richard Louv, founder of the Children and Nature Network, has authored eight books on the benefits of integrating nature, family and community. He writes, “In 2006, a Danish study found that outdoor kindergartens were better than indoor schools at stimulating children’s creativity. The researchers reported that 58 percent of children who were in close touch with nature often invented new games; just 16 percent of indoor kindergarten children did.”
Dr. Stephen R. Kellert, professor emeritus at the Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies wrote in a 2012 paper “Children, Nature, and the Future of our Species" that children are engaged with electronic media (computers, television, games) on average 52 hours a week but typically spend less than 49 minutes outside.
“Humanity is the product of its evolved relationship to nature, countless yesterdays of ongoing interaction and experience of the nonhuman environment," Kellert writes. "Our senses, our emotions, our intellect, even our spirit are developed in close association with and in adaptive response to the natural world. Our physical and mental health, productivity, and wellbeing rely on myriad direct and indirect connections to nature, even as our world becomes increasingly fabricated and constructed.”
Kellert recently created The National Initiative to Understand and Connect, aimed at "enhancing American relationships in the natural world.”
Based on his country's experience, Li advises, “Japan has designated 48 forest therapy bases so far because of the concept of shinrin-yoku. I think that Americans also can learn from the experience of the Japanese and designate forest therapy bases too.”