“In Japan, the country that has the highest population density in the world but also vast expanses of green forests (about 3,000 miles of them), an ancient tradition tries to balance out the crush from urban living. It's known as shinrin-yoku, or "forest bathing." It's the practice of spending prolonged periods of time with trees in order to gain from their many health benefits. In a book hitting shelves this month, Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health And Happiness, Dr. Qing Li, the world's foremost expert in forest medicine, introduces readers to the healing practice of forest bathing — and the art and science of how trees can enrich your life. (There are other books on forest bathing that I also recommend, including the recently released Your Guide to Forest Bathing, by M. Amos Clifford, focusing on the more meditative side of shinrin-yoku.)
Dr. Li's book is itself a tribute to forests and the magnificence of trees… Li has not just practiced shinrin-yoku, but has also studied its impact on people's health through numerous scientific studies. He has data to support his claims, collected in a long list of peer-reviewed articles at the end of the book. He is a medical doctor at the Tokyo's Nippon Medical School, and has been a visiting fellow at Stanford University School of Medicine, among other appointments and leadership roles.
Here is the scoop: Forest bathing reduces stress, anxiety, depression, and anger. The book lists studies that consistently show a substantial reduction of stress hormones. Essential tree oils, such as phytoncides found in forest air (pine trees and cypress tend to be the richest), increase energy levels by more than 30 percent. Aromatherapy enthusiasts know well that such tree oils conjure a general state of well-being, capturing the essence of forest bathing. There is improvement in sleep (an average increase by 15 percent after a two-hour forest walk), a boost of the immune system and in cardiovascular health, and better parasympathetic response (rest-and-recover). The health and emotional benefits are plentiful…
Scientific results apart, the notion of shinrin-yoku shouldn't be so surprising. Who hasn't felt an inner sense of well-being when walking along a forest trail, the sun filtering through the leaves to create a kaleidoscope of light and shadows on the ground? We take these walks to feel rejuvenated, more attuned to our bodies, to refresh our minds. Stepping into a forest, or just into a small grove, is like pushing a life reset button, reestablishing a connection with our deepest needs. It's hard not to feel something viscerally meaningful as we surround ourselves by trees, away from the artificial sounds and smells of urban life…”
-- Marcelo Gleiser, “Suffering From Nature Deficit Disorder? Try Forest Bathing,” NPR (www.npr.org), April 4, 2018
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The above April excerpt from the NPR website is only the latest in a number of reports on the subject of forest bathing that have appeared the past couple of years.
Why some of us love hiking is no mystery. One answer is that we tend to feel great or wonderful when we’re in nature, which locally often means in mountain forests.
There are undoubtedly many reasons for our heightened sense of well-being and contentment while hiking, including being away from stress, exercising in fresh air, and enjoying the lovely, inspiring, and sometimes just plain awesome scenery.
And trees? Most of us would say we appreciate or even love them, although we don’t usually think of health benefits that may result from being in their presence.
We now know that in Japan there’s been a good deal of scientific research in recent years examining the surprisingly positive effects of spending time around trees.
As indicated in the above excerpt, the health benefits are clear and pronounced, which is why doctors in Japan now prescribe forest bathing for many patients.
Forest bathing can simply involve sitting or gently walking in a forested area, and doesn’t inherently require exercise. However, the therapeutic effects of hiking, not to mention the adventures of exploring mountain trails, multiplies the rewards.
Some rustic health spas in the US are now said to be featuring forest bathing retreats as a healthy hook to attract people to spending more time in the woods.
But if you’re someone who currently hikes with us occasionally or regularly, you’ve already integrated sessions of therapeutic forest bathing into your schedule!
-- Charlie Cook