When you go hiking, do you sense that taking a walk through the trees is good for you? As it turns out, there’s a contingent of researchers who are dedicated solely to research on hiking in forests.
Back in 1982, the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture coined a term for what people have always been doing. They called it shinrin-yoku, which means “taking in the forest atmosphere” or "forest bathing.” The Japanese Ministry has issued public service announcements encouraging people to go to forests to relieve stress and improve health. I wish we Americans would’ve had a PSA on forest bathing. The only PSAs I remember on health during the 1980s were “exercise your choppers” and “a hanker for a hunk-of-cheese.” If you’re a Gen Xer you know what I’m talkin’ about! ;)
Anyhoo…back to shinrin-yoku. Studies show that both exercising in forests and simply sitting and looking at trees reduces blood pressure and reduces the stress-related hormones cortisol and adrenaline. Looking at pictures of trees has a similar, but less dramatic effect. Studies have compared walking in forests vs. walking in urban, unplanted areas, and the urban walkers showed no reduction of stress-related hormones. Forest bathing also significantly decreases people’s scores on a standardized inventory for anxiety, depression, anger, confusion, and fatigue.
Another effect of shinrin-yoku is that it boosts our immune system. Here’s how it does that. When we breathe in fresh air, we breathe in phytoncides, which are airborne chemicals that plants give off to protect themselves from insects. Phytoncides have antibacterial and antifungal qualities which help plants fight disease. When people breathe in these chemicals, our bodies respond by increasing the number and activity of a type of white blood cell called natural killer cells. These cells kill tumor- and virus-infected cells in our bodies. In one study, people who spent three days and two nights on a forest bathing trip increased their natural killer cell activity for more than 30 days following the trip. Japanese researchers are currently exploring whether exposure to forests can help prevent certain kinds of cancer.
Yet another awesome benefit: shinrin-yoku may help you focus better. Our lives are busier than ever, and attempting to focus on many activities can mentally drain us. Even maintaining focus on a single thing for a long period of time can deplete us mentally. This is a phenomenon called “Directed Attention Fatigue.” Spending time in nature, looking at trees, plants, water, birds, and other aspects of nature gives the cognitive portion of our brain a break, which allows us to focus better and renews our ability to be patient.
Here’s a quick recap of shinrin-yoku’s health benefits:
1. Lowers blood pressure
2. Reduces stress
3. Boosts the immune system
4. Increases ability to focus
5. Enhances patience
6. Improves mood and sense of well-being
7. Increases energy level
8. Improves sleep
9. Accelerates recovery after surgery or illness
Research shows that visiting a forest has real, quantifiable health benefits. Even spending just five minutes around trees or in green spaces has the power to improve your health. Think of shinrin-yoku like a prescription with no negative side effects…and it’s free!