There is something inherently magical about a walk through the forest. Just imagine the trees towering around you, sunlight peeking through the tops, the texture, and crackle of the uneven ground beneath your feet. You can almost feel the magic now.
We all know that getting out into nature is good for the soul, but did you know that a walk in the forest can have a tangible and positive effect on your health?
The Secret the Japanese Have Known For Years
Nature-based therapy is nothing new, at least in the East. Developed by Japanese scientists in the 1980s, Shinrin-Yoku (literally translated as “forest-bathing”) is a critical part of the Japanese health and wellness system.
Take it from Dr. Won Sop Shin, Minister of the Korea Forest Service, who stated in October 2015 that, “A study showed that a 30-minute forest trek decreased negative feelings such as stress, depression, anger, fatigue, anxiety, and confusion, and improved cognitive skills.”
So, take some time out of your usual routine and find some trees! If you’re still not convinced, here are six real health benefits a walk in the forest can have.
Reduces Cortisol Levels
Cortisol is our body’s stress hormone, designed to kick in when we need to fight or flight for our survival. High levels of this hormone can weaken our immune systems, change our metabolism, as well as make us feel tired, stressed, and weak. It is an important hormone to keep in balance. However, keeping that balance isn’t easy in our fast-paced, high-stress lives. That’s where a walk in the forest can help.
One study, conducted in two dozen forests across Japan with nearly 500 participants, concluded that a walk in the forest significantly decreased levels of cortisol. The hormone’s levels dropped nearly 16 percent more than when the same person walked in an urban environment. Additionally, the participants’ blood pressure showed improvement after spending just 15 minutes in the forest.
Lowers Blood Sugar
Studies have shown that forest therapy effectively decreases blood-glucose levels in diabetic patients. In a 1998 study, patients were given blood-glucose tests before walking in the forest, and were tested afterward to measure any changes. The forest environment itself can cause “changes in hormonal secretion and autonomic nervous functions” that can help lower blood sugars, as well as the added physical exercise from walking. However, it is the combination of walking in the forest where patients saw the most improvement.
Improves Concentration and Brain Function
Forest walking is a natural mood enhancer, but it can also help our brains function better and can even improve concentration. A research team from Chiba University collected data from two large groups of adults: 500 who took part in forest therapy, and 500 who didn’t. In a study published in 2013, researchers confirmed that “spending time within a forest can reduce psychological stress, depressive symptoms, and hostility, while at the same time improving sleep and increasing both vigor and a feeling of liveliness.”
We’ve always known that fresh air, exercise, and getting out in nature can improve our mood, but there is real evidence that forest walking can actually decrease clinical depression, and help patients with alcoholism.
Dr. Shin says, “Forests can improve psychological stability in patients with depression and alcoholism. Scores on the Beck Depression Inventory decreased among patients with depression and scores on a self-esteem measure increased among individuals with alcohol use disorder, after participating in a forest healing program.”
Fights Off Allergy Symptoms
Tom Ogren, author of The Allergy Fighting Garden, says most allergy sufferers don’t have to worry too much when they are truly in nature. He says, “In nature, things are much more in balance, certainly the trees and shrubs are in a gender balance, and there is usually around one female tree for every male tree in the wild. This horticultural balance keeps the air cleaner, is better for everyone, especially anyone with allergies or asthma.”
For those with allergies, a walk in the forest can actually boost your own immunity and improve your allergic reactions as you get more exposure to nature. Dr. Shin says, “Patients with pediatric asthma or atopic dermatitis obtained relief from their symptoms after undergoing a forest healing program.”
If you’re looking for respite from allergies, stop leafing through pages of air purifier reviews, and just get outside!
Helps Your Body Fight Cancer Cells
Just the scent of trees can assist your body in fighting cancer cells, according to a 2009 study.
One of the biggest benefits of forest-bathing comes from a compound called phytoncide, which is derived from trees and plants and is breathed in by humans during forest therapy. It is this phytoncide exposure that helps our bodies, explains Dr. Shin, by increasing our levels of a particular brand of disease-fighting white blood cells. “The forest environment can boost the immune system by increasing the number of natural killer cells, which may facilitate recovery from cancer. Actually, the forest healing program was found to facilitate the recovery of breast cancer patients.”
Our bodies were meant to live in nature, and it is nature itself that is our healer.
Step away from the screen and make it a date: you and the forest.
Your mind, body, and soul will thank you for it.
Featured photo credit: Dustin Scarpitti via magdeleine.co