“I worked very hard in Tokyo and had backaches and stiff shoulders. But they’ve gone. I’m no longer anxious and I’m very happy.”
Now glowing with health, the youthful 57-year-old Yasuyo Nishiura explains why. “It’s because I surround myself with forests.”
Yasuyo is one of Japan’s many forest therapists. She leads people through the woodland as a way of boosting mental and physical health.
It’s an activity that holds a special place in the psyche of Japan.
But you don’t have to travel overseas to be guided by a forest therapist; there are a growing number in the US. In fact, according to the Washington Post, it’s the latest fitness trend to hit the nation.
Huge Array of Health Benefits
Forest therapy, also called forest bathing or Shinrin-yoku, refers to the practice of spending time in nature to enhance health, happiness and wellbeing.
Since less than 0.01% of the history of our species has been spent in towns, cities and artificial environments, some scientists believe we are not well adapted to this form of living. This, they say, is causing high levels of stress.
Exposure to nature is one way of lowering stress hormones and inducing a relaxed state of being.
Research into the benefits of spending time in a forest environment has been ongoing since 1990. Studies have shown that it:
- lowers stress
- reduces depression
- induces a state of physiological relaxation
- decreases pulse rate
- lowers blood pressure
- raises vitality
- improves working memory
- lowers blood sugar in diabetics
- boosts a weakened immune system
- reduces death from cancer
That’s an impressive range of benefits for such a simple activity.
Activates All 5 Senses
So who needs a therapist to take a nature walk? It turns out forest therapy is more involved than simply ambling through greenery.
Shinrin-yoku translates as “taking in the forest atmosphere through all of our senses.” It embraces interacting with nature in a way that activates sight, sound, smell, touch and taste. It invites healing.
Walks can take from two to four hours, but during that lengthy time the “patients” may walk less than a mile. Clearly something else is going on.
Certified forest therapy guide Ben Page, who founded the Los Angeles group, explains how it differs from other nature activities.
“…a nature walk’s objective is to provide informational content and a hike’s to reach a destination; a Shinrin-yoku walk’s objective is to give participants an opportunity to slow down, appreciate things that can only be seen or heard when one is moving slowly, and take a break from the stress of their daily lives.”
Chiba University’s Yoshifumi Miyazaki, a leading researcher in this field, says that “we were made to fit a natural environment. When we are exposed to nature, our bodies go back to how they should be.”
The Healing Scent of Trees
Li Qing, assistant professor of forest medicine at Nippon Medical School, Tokyo, conducted three studies that demonstrated an increase in the immune system’s natural killer cells by as much as 50% in men and women with weakened immunity. The effect was maintained in men 30 days after the walk.
Li believes the boost to immunity can be partly attributed to phytoncides. These are chemicals secreted by evergreen trees.
Physicians in the 19th century speculated on an unseen airborne substance as a way to explain the recovery of TB patients in sanatoriums set in the pine forests of Germany and the Adirondack forests of New York.
To test if these effects were real, several indoor studies exposed participants to wood oils or leaf oils from trees. The researchers found improvement in immune function in the former, and induction of physiological relaxation in the latter.
If you are interested in taking part in a walk, the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy provides a map where you can locate a guide. You can visit it here: http://www.natureandforesttherapy.org/find-a-guide.html