Forest bathing to reduce stress and even heal our bodies
Chained to our desk, a computer monitor in front of our face, smartphone accompanying us wherever we go, the stresses of everyday urban life can sometimes seem insurmountable. With more than 7m years of human evolution, we have spent less than 0.1% of that time living in cities – and we have yet to fully adapt. Our bodies are built to live among nature.
And that’s where our old friends the trees can help. Most of us feel a soothing effect from spending time in a forest, or even the local park, surrounded by greenery. Research from Japan shows that there is actually a reason for this – spending time surrounded by nature actually does help to heal our bodies and minds.
In Japan, the term “shinrin-yoku” is a household phrase. It literally translates as “forest bathing”, immersing oneself in nature for increased wellbeing, and it has become a national pastime. The term was coined in 1982 by forestry minister Tomohide Akiyama, prompting a government campaign to promote Japan’s 25m hectares of forests, which make up 67% of the land. Today, shinrin-yoku package tours are offered by most travel agencies, with dedicated forest-therapy bases around Japan. The idea is that you switch off your mind, melt into nature, and let the forest’s healing hands do the rest.
It may seem obvious that being away from your daily routine will reduce stress, but according to Yoshifumi Miyazaki, a professor at Chiba University and author of a book on shinrin-yoku, forest bathing doesn’t just have psychological benefits – it also has a physiological effect.
“Your cortisol levels rise when you are feeling stressed, and fall when you are relaxed,” Miyazaki says. “We discovered that when you go for a walk in the forest, cortisol levels are reduced, which means you are less stressed.”
These health benefits can last for several days, meaning that a weekly detox can promote sustained wellbeing.
Miyazaki’s team think that forest bathing may also strengthen the immune system, making us less receptive to infection, tumours and stress. “We are currently researching the effects of shinrin-yoku on patients who are on the verge of becoming ill,” says Miyazaki. “It could be a kind of preventative treatment, so we’re putting the data together now.”
Brits keen to try out the benefits for themselves can sign up to organised forest-bathing sessions. Forest Holidays is a company partly operated by the Forestry Commission that offers holidays in wood cabins at sites around Britain, and even forest-bathing sessions at sites in Hampshire’s Blackwood Forest and Norfolk’s Thorpe Forest. Similarly, Forest Therapy Scotland runs regular guided forest-bathing walks in various locations around Scotland. And, of course, there’s nothing to stop you simply visiting a forest alone or with friends.
“Beware, though,” Miyazaki says, “it can get very cold, and being cold eradicates the positive effects of forest bathing. Be sure to dress warmly.”
When you do reach the woods, be sure to turn off your phone, and make the most of your five senses – gaze at the scenery, touch the trees, smell the bark and flowers, listen to the sound of the wind or a waterfall, and pack a picnic and a flask of tea.
If the forest seems a little far away, don’t despair. Miyazaki’s research shows that similar effects can be achieved by visiting a local park or green space, or even by keeping indoor plants on your desk at work. “The data shows that going to a forest has the strongest effect, but there are still positive physiological effects from visiting a local park or keeping plants and flowers, which is of course much more convenient.”
If you’re really desperate for a forestry fix but can’t get away from your desk, Miyazaki’s research shows that simply looking at a photo or video of nature scenes has the same beneficial effects, albeit in a more limited way. Try searching for forest-bathing videos on YouTube if you need that temporary fix.
Humankind lived outdoors for millennia. City life brings all sorts of conveniences and health advantages. But from time to time it’s worth remembering our roots, and communing with nature for a little boost.