Saturday, August 18, 2018

9 Phenomenal Health Benefits of Shinrin-Yoku (Forest Bathing)

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!


Saturday, August 4, 2018

HIIT vs. Steady-State Cardio for Your Best Body

Are you thinking about joining a gym or starting a new exercise program? Do you wonder if you’ll get better results with high-intensity interval training (HIIT) or steady-state cardio? A recent study by the American Council on Exercise (ACE) just might answer your cardio conundrum.

ACE’s study compared three different types of cardio:  steady-state vs. Meyer vs. Tabata. Study participants were 65 men and women aged 18 to 28 who were relatively sedentary…meaning that in the 3 months before the study, they didn’t exercise more than twice per week, and when/if they did exercise, it was low-to-moderate intensity. Participants were randomly assigned to 3 groups:

Steady-state Group:  20 minutes of continuous exercise at 90 percent of the participant’s ventilatory threshold, which fits into the moderate-to-vigorous intensity category as defined by the American College of Sports Medicine.
Meyer Group:  Moderate-intensity interval training consisting of 20 minutes (13 sets) of 30-second work intervals (100 percent of the participant’s peak aerobic power) paired with 60 seconds of activity recovery.
Tabata Group: This is very brief, very high-intensity interval training consisting of four minutes (eight sets) of exercise consisting of 20 seconds of work (at 170 percent of the individual’s peak aerobic power) paired with 10 seconds of unloaded pedaling.

So which group had the best results? All of them! The two HIIT workouts (Meyer and Tabata) didn’t produce significantly greater improvements in markers of aerobic and anaerobic exercise performance compared to steady-state cardio. Participants in all groups showed improvements in cardiorespiratory health at a very similar rate over the course of the study.

Hold up. Before you choose to do four minutes of Tabata rather than 20 minutes of steady-state cardio, here’s another interesting finding from this study. On a weekly basis throughout the study, participants completed a survey called the Exercise Enjoyment Scale (EES). Results from the EES showed that exercise enjoyment declined progressively across the duration of the study for all three groups. In addition, the Tabata group’s EES scores were the lowest of the three groups. Tabata is really, realllyyy hard…so it’s unlikely to be perceived as enjoyable. Sticking with a program and making exercise a part of your lifestyle is one of the keys to long-term health. If you’d rather stab yourself in the eye than do Tabata, you’re probably going to stop working out. Especially for fitness newbies, the drop-out rate from any exercise program is high.

So what does all this mean? Here’s my opinion. Hypothetically, if HIIT were far superior to steady-state cardio, delivering much better, faster results…I’d recommend you do HIIT because the amazing results would potentially keep you from dropping out. Studies show that seeing results over a short period of time keeps people motivated to exercise. Whether or not less enjoyable exercise with far superior fitness results would correlate with a lower drop-out rate when compared to more enjoyable exercise with inferior fitness results has not been studied. What we do know is HIIT doesn’t appear to be superior to steady-state cardio for relatively sedentary young adults…and apparently steady-state is more enjoyable than HIIT. So I recommend you do steady-state workouts with a smile on your face rather than balls-to-the-walls Tabata. You’re welcome. ;)