The secret to better health might be found in the forest.
Research shows spending time among the trees is linked with a host of health benefits from reducing stress, pulse rate and blood pressure to boosting mood. A 2018 study, published in the journal Environmental Research, is the latest in a growing body of research that shows nature has the potential to heal.
The researchers reviewed data from 140 studies and found people who spent more time in nature, including forests and greenspaces, had a reduced risk of Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and premature death; spending time outside also led to increased sleep duration.
Based on the findings, lead researcher Caoimhe Twohig-Bennett of Norwich Medical School in the United Arab Emirates, says, “My advice would be to spend time in natural areas whenever possible! This could be through walking to work, taking your lunch break in a park away from your desk or by choosing to exercise outdoors instead of in an indoor or gym environment.”
Embracing the healing powers of the outdoors is such a popular pastime in Japan, it has a name: shinrin-yoku.
“My advice would be to spend time in natural areas whenever possible! This could be through walking to work, taking your lunch break in a park away from your desk or by choosing to exercise outdoors instead of in an indoor or gym environment.”
Better known as forest bathing, shinrin-yoku is the practice of spending time in the forest for health and well-being. It caught on in the 1980s when stressed-out tech workers were sick from logging too much time at their desks; the Japanese government encouraged people to spend more time outside.
It has become so popular the Japanese government has created more than 1,000 “recreation forests” to encourage people to engage with the natural world. Over the past three decades, forest bathing has become a routine part of preventive healthcare in the island nation.
Forest bathing has spread beyond Japan. In the U.S., the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy offers guided excursions into the forest to improve well-being and organized forest bathing groups have popped up in several cities.
Twohig-Bennett supports the widespread adoption of forest bathing, noting, “Parks and greenspaces are typically free of charge to use, so there are lots of ways that we can incorporate spending time in nature into our daily routines.”
Margaret M. Hansen EdD, professor of nursing at the University of San Francisco published a meta-analysis in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health with the goal of showcasing the diversity of research on forest bathing. She explains, “I think there is a long tradition of being in nature and noticing its relating effects on the mind, body and soul …” that has led to cravings to escape from densely-populated urban areas to destress.
The growing interest in forest bathing — and the new studies that support the practice — will benefit public health, notes Hansen. In the meantime, she advises getting outside.
“Make and take time to take a walk in natural settings and see how it makes you feel,” she says. “Don’t forget to breathe deeply … and stand in awe of the great outdoors. Forest therapy is a self-care practice and so, when the call of nature beckons you, put away your laptop and follow.”