Originally written for LawTalk Magazine, published April 2018
In Japan they call it forest bathing or shinrin-yoku, a term made up by the government in 1982 to encourage city dwellers into nature for preventative healthcare and healing. In other places they call it ecotherapy, nature therapy or nature appreciation but it really doesn’t matter what it’s called, mostly we know it as getting outside.
Although we mainly spend our working lives indoors, we’re still a nation of people that likes to get outside and we’re lucky that we can all access green spaces easily even from the middle of our biggest cities.
Traditional societies have always recognised the healing properties of nature and instinctively we know that getting outdoors is good for us, but research is increasingly showing how nature can improve our health.
The New Zealand Government has recognised nature’s healing power and the link between healthy environments and healthy societies. This has resulted in the Department of Conservation and the Mental Health Foundation partnering to promote and strengthen the connection between health, wellbeing and nature.
The concept of forest bathing is to immerse yourself in the forest (or nature generally) to clear your head and engage all the senses to connect with the environment. This means no counting steps or intense tramping, no focus on how far you have to run or how high your heart rate should be, and no music or devices to distract you. The idea is to get outside, notice that you’re outside and let nature do the healing. All you have to do is sit or walk slowly and take a look around – a form of mindful meditation.
Nature has been demonstrated to improve our health in a number of ways:
Improves mental health
Long hours on devices and in front of TV and computer screens are associated with rising levels of depression, anxiety and isolation. Being in nature is an opportunity to disconnect from technology, connect with ourselves and clear the head.
It’s been found that 20 minutes of forest bathing alters blood flow to the brain in a way that promotes relaxation. In particular, haemoglobin to the prefrontal cortex is decreased, this is the area of the brain that’s usually stimulated during stress and after periods of intense mental and physical work.
Taking a nature break gives your brain a break.
Restores mental energy and improves concentration
Being in nature not only lifts our mood and promotes feelings of calm and balance, it also helps us focus and be more productive.
In 2010, a study[i] published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology discussed the effects of the outdoors on vitality, defined as having physical and mental energy to harness for purposive actions. Part of the study involved participants taking a 15min silent walk – half the group walked indoors and half outdoors along a tree-lined path.
Those that walked indoors experienced no change in vitality whereas those that walked outdoors showed a significant increase in energy levels. Interestingly, the weather made no difference – even when it was cloudy or wet, those that went outside felt better.
Get outside and come back more focused, efficient and productive.
Lowers stress levels
Being in forest environments has also been shown to lower cortisol (stress hormone) levels, heart rate, blood pressure and muscle tension and increase the body’s parasympathetic response (the rest and recovery function of our autonomic nervous system which is the flip side to the fight and flight or sympathetic response).[ii]
Chronic stress supresses the parasympathetic response as well as our ability to heal and recover. Lower your chronic stress levels to allow your body to restore itself.
It’s also been claimed that office workers with a view of nature from a window will report lower stress levels and higher job satisfaction.
Terpenes, which are chemicals produced by plants to protect them from predators and found in many essential oils, have been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects in people by inhibiting proinflammatory pathways in bronchitis, lung disease, skin inflammation, and osteoarthritis.[iii]
It’s been shown that exposure to terpenes through forest bathing has anti-inflammatory effects and you can also access their benefits through using various essential oils.
The connection between chronic stress and lowered immunity is well known so it follows that the stress lowering effects of nature will have positive impacts on our immune system. However, other ways that forests can improve our immunity have also been studied.
Phytoncides are aromatic essential oils that emitted by plants and trees containing anti-microbial properties that help the plant fight disease and protect them from harmful organisms. Phytoncides have also been found to improve our immune systems – when we breathe in phytoncides, the increase the number and activity of the white blood cells called natural killer (NK) cells which protect help kill tumours and virus infected cells in our bodies.[iv] Inhaled phytoncides has been reported to have positive effects in our system for more than 7 days and possibly up to 30days.
After 3 to 4 days in the forest NK cells can be raised by as much as 50% but you’ll still get benefits from a short time amongst the trees.
Taking advantage of the healing powers of nature doesn’t have to take days or weeks, a short walk in nature during your lunch break can do wonders for your health. If you can’t get amongst the trees, look for somewhere with vegetation of some kind or the sea.
You may already spend good amounts of time outside, but if you want to forest bathe like the Japanese consider what your mind is doing and where your attention goes. Usually it’s in daydreams and making mental notes and not in the present moment. Even though you’ve physically taken yourself into a green space, sometimes we forget to take our minds there too.
Keep these simple steps in mind when you shinrin-yoku:
- Leave your phone, tablet, camera and other distractions behind so that you can be fully present.
- Forget about setting goals and having expectations, just wander around and go where you want.
- Take a break as you stroll to pay more attention to the things you see, or how the ground feels beneath your feet with each step.
- Find a place to take time to sit, listen and watch what’s happening around you.
- If you’re with others, try to resist talking until you finish.
We’ve always inherently known that nature makes us feel good, now the science is showing us the link between our individual health and the environment.
[ii] Park et al, The physiological effects of Shinrin-yoku (taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing): evidence from field experiments in 24 forests across Japan Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine 2010 Jan; 15(1): 18–26