Did you know the Japanese have a word for “forest bathing”? It is shinrin-yoku. As you can imagine from the translation, it just means losing yourself in the forest while enjoying the air, the scents, the vegetation and the sounds of birds and animals that live there. But did you know that there are some amazing health benefits as well? Apart from the obvious ones like getting fresh air and exercise, there are studies that show that a walk in the forest or a park with lots of trees may be the healthiest thing you can do.
A vital part of our immune system is made up of NK (Natural killer) cells which can fight cancer. Could a walk in the forest really get those cells going? That was what researchers led by Dr. Li of the Nippon Medical School in Tokyo, set out to show. They took blood samples from small groups of volunteers before they set out on their forest expedition. They spent two or three days in the forest. After their stay in the forest hotel, their blood was taken again for analysis and it showed a remarkable increase in the NK cell activity which also lasted for a month afterwards. Even a one day forest trip showed an increase in these cells although the long term effects were obviously shorter. Imagine the health benefits of doing this on a regular basis!
Scents and smells have a powerful effect on our health and emotions. It seems that smells are closely tied to the emotional center in our brain. This is why certain smells and scents can arouse a sense of nostalgia or other emotions relating to our past.
But can they help reduce stress? This is what researchers at Kyoto University wanted to demonstrate. They asked subjects to evaluate their moods and stress levels on their forest days and on the control days when they were in their normal environment. Their conclusions show that the forest days were crucial in reducing their chronic stress.
As to why this happened, the explanation given by scientists is that pine, fir, cedar and cypress trees contain the phytoncides such as alpha-pinene and beta-pinene which make up the essential oils of many plants and trees. These were found to decrease levels of the cortisol stress hormone.
In an interesting study, Londoners living near trees were found to have better mental health. Even the presence of street trees seemed to have a positive outcome and one study found that areas with more trees had lower rates of prescriptions for antidepressants.
The fact of being near a tree or seeing it change with the seasons helps people to cope with living in an urban setting which can be depressing in itself. Much better to go for a walk in a forest but many people have to make do with gazing at a tree or a walk in a neighboring park.
Walking through a forest or green area with trees has been found to aid memory and learning. Forest kindergartens have become popular in Germany where there are approximately 450 while in the US and the UK, the idea is slowly taking off. Research indicates that children playing in these forest environments are better at many cognitive skills but also have better manual dexterity and can assess risks better than those kids educated in an enclosed space. The great thing about this outdoor education, even if it is just a day out, is that children learn about the importance of forests, their maintenance and how they help the planet.
The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) in America are promoting National Trails Day because they know that a natural environment such as a forest really does have enormous health benefits. It also helps to maintain the forests as working parties are invited to participate.
One of the health benefits mentioned is that forest walks can help to keep your blood pressure down. Japanese researchers asked a small group of volunteers to go for a two hour walk in a forest park in the Tokyo suburbs. As a control, they had to do a similar walk in an urban setting. After all the tests were carried out, the group had lower blood pressure when walking in the forest area than when they walked in the city area.
According to the Global Burden of Disease study, nearly 30% of the world’s population is now obese or overweight! In the UK, 67% of males and 57% of females are now in the overweight category. There are many solutions but walking, cycling, tai chi or doing conservation work regularly in forested areas will help. The Forestry Commission in Wales (UK), together with help from family doctors are strongly recommending that people with weight and other health problems should take a walk in the forest. It is far healthier than doing a workout in the gym.
As you will see from the Facebook page here, walking in the green, forested woodlands is one of the best ways there is to overcome general health problems and above all, reduce loneliness by walking with other people.
451 years ago, Shakespeare was well aware of the benefits of walking for health.
“…a turn or two I’ll walk,
To still my beating mind.”
Prospero, The Tempest.
So, what are you waiting for? That urban park or nearby forest is just crying out for a visit from you!
Featured photo credit: Young woman is in the park on a winter’s day and is hugging a tree via shutterstock.com
Featured photo credit: Young woman is in the park on a winter's day and is hugging a tree via shutterstock.com
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