I spent my childhood playing in the woods behind my house — building rock bridges in the stream, and catching crayfish, salamanders, and minnows in the eddies with little neon nets and my bare hands — but I am part of the generation that Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods , has called increasingly the exception, not the rule.
As we have entered an era of accelerated technology, increased digital connection, growing urbanization, and more homes and offices in high rises, the temptation to spend more time away from nature has reached an all time high.
Our lifestyles are moving indoors and becoming more sedentary, as contrasted with previous eras in which we had no other options but to work and play outside. As a result, we are seeing physical health issues like obesity and mental health disorders like anxiety on the rise.
But while doctors may have all sorts of fancy names for various new and negative conditions we are encountering as a population, I prefer the term coined by Louv — “Nature Deficit Disorder.”
Fortunately, spending more time in natural areas is one drug-free and cost-free remedy at our disposal. And while the subjective benefits of doing so may have been quite obvious for centuries (John Muir and Henry David Thoreau didn’t fail to remind us), a growing body of scientific evidence now supports the claims that doing so is just so amazing for our physiological health.
Heal Yourself Through “Forest Bathing”
The Japanese term “Shinrin Yoku” literally translates to “forest bathing” or “taking in forest atmosphere,” and the practice has become a cornerstone of preventative health care and healing in Japanese medicine.
A robust body of scientific research now exists in Japan to reinforce this phenomenon.
Here are some ways that forest bathing can transform your health and your life:
1. Reduced stress, lowered blood pressure, and improved autonomic nervous system activity
One study on the physiological effects of Shinrin Yoku gathered evidence from 24 field experiment in forests throughout Japan.
There were 12 subjects in each experiment, for a total of 280 people. The group of 12 was split in half. On the first day, 6 subjects went to a forest area and 6 subjects went to a city area. On the second day, they switched.
The activities in both the forests and cities were the same, consisting of about 15 minutes of sitting and 15 minutes of walking, with measurements assessing salivary cortisol, blood pressure, pulse rate, and heart rate taken systematically between activities. Alcohol and tobacco were forbidden and caffeine consumption controlled.
The results of the study revealed that when people spend time in forest environments they experience reduced markers in cortisol, pulse rate, and blood pressure. The study also concluded that participants experienced decreased sympathetic nervous system activity and increased parasympathetic nervous system activity.
The study also reviewed 9 previous studies, all of which concluded that forest bathing decreases one or more of the following: Pulse rate, systolic blood pressure, diastolic blood pressure, salivary cortisol, and blood glucose.
2. Better Breathing
From a subjective point of view, there’s hardly any doubt that getting into nature, being surrounded by trees, and breathing in the natural air, feels very fresh and pure.
But in truth we can regard forest bathing on much the same level as aromatherapy.
According to one scholarly review on the effects of forest bathing trips, when we visit nature we inhale volatile substances — phytoncides, or wood essential oils — which are antimicrobial organic compounds, such as α-pinene and limonene, derived from trees.
It’s also an actual scientific fact that trees literally renew our air supply, so when we are near lots of trees we are inhaling newer, cleaner air.
Here are some of the other facts, according to the Growing Air Foundation, related to how trees improve our air, breathing, and overall health:
Tees produce oxygen and absorb carbon dioxide
Just one acre of trees provides an entire years supply of oxygen for 18 people
That same acre removes 2.6 tons of carbon dioxide that year
At least 80% of the fruits, vegetables, nuts, and spices consumed by developed nations — including avocados, coconuts, oranges, rice, yams, chocolate, cinnamon, and cashews — originated in the most heavily forested areas of the world, the tropical rain forests
121 worldwide prescription drugs derive from plant sources and 25% of the active ingredients used in drugs that fight cancer grow only in the rainforest
3. Boosted immune system functioning, with an increase in the count of the body’s Natural Killer cells
One scholarly review that looked specifically at the effects of forest bathing on immune function compiled evidence from a series of studies on groups of subjects that attended 3 day/2 night trips to forest areas.
Blood and urine samples were gathered from the subjects on normal working days before the trips, on days 2 and 3, and on days 7 and 30 (after the trip).
Evidence from the studies determined that the level of natural killer cell activity increased not only during the time the subjects spent in nature, but for more than 30 days following the trip. On the contrary, the review indicated that tourist visits to cities did not increase natural killer cell activity.
The review suggests therefore that a forest bathing trip once per month would help individuals to maintain higher levels of natural killer cell activity.
Here’s How to “Bathe” In a Nature
1. Find a local wooded area
For those of us who live near deep nature — say somewhere rural — this will be easier than for those of us who live closer to the city. The further we are from the city or major roadways, the less likely we are to experience all the noise, congestion, and interferences that saturate our ordinary daily activities.
2. Bring a few essentials
Let’s start with these:
3. Silence your cell phone
Being in nature is our opportunity to get away from technology. It’s important to have our phones for emergency situations, but try to resist the temptation to send messages or make phone calls.
4. Walk around
Not only is being in nature promote relaxation, it’s a great opportunity to add a little gentle exercise to your day.
5. Find a spot
Now this is where I like to sit down — the more horizontal, the better — and spread my arms and legs out as if I’m actually “bathing” in a tub. Allow all your extremities to fall limp and take in all the clean air.
6. Practice breathing exercises
I love to practice pranayama when I am in nature. Take a seat on a log or a big old rock and give nadi shodhana a try!