Forest Bathing

What is forest bathing? It’s not running through Altona Forest in the rain. I’m referring to a Japanese concept I ran into about 2 years ago – Shinrin-yoku (森林浴). It’s a practice of engaging with forests to increase your psychological and physiological health – and doctors in Japan give prescriptions for it. Since its early 1980’s inception, this type of ecotherapy focused on tuning into nature, and letting go of the ‘mental noise’ and devices that structure our days. I’ve been noticing how it links with groundbreaking science. Let’s just call it ‘forest therapy’ and look at what walking in the forest can do for you.

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You can expect physical activity and perhaps the social interaction of the experience to increase your sense of well-being. You already know how activity positively affects the body, but does walking in a forest go beyond conventional benefits?

Stress reduction is one factor: the same person walking on a city walk for the same amount of time doesn’t get the same level of benefit as walking in the forest. The one variable is where the walk takes place – forest.

It’s almost instinctive knowledge that simply being in nature is healthy and beneficial. Fresh air, dappled sun, cool tree canopy. To connect with nature in a forest gives us mental and physical health benefits that have developed over the millennia of our evolution. We developed synergy with natural spaces.

One very simple way to look at it is that humans are a part of nature – not distinct or removed from it.  The types of places that sheltered our evolution resonate in our bodies: we physically react to terrain that nurtured our species. The colours, sights, sounds, touch and smells of nature are as much a part of us as oxygen. We have been denying our deep connection to the natural world for longer than two heavily-industrialized centuries… moving away from the environments that sustained us. It’s interesting that the effects of being in forests are both immediate and increase exponentially over time.

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image from urbankidadventures.com

Forest therapy goes beyond just the benefits of a ‘walk in the park’; the full Japanese experience takes it a level further for deeper health benefits. It involves all of the senses and engaging in the experience. It’s not a fast-paced heart-rate enhancer (though you could work on that as separate goal). Forest bathing is meant as a way to connect with nature – slow walking, sitting, silent contemplation, looking more deeply. Slow down – get rid of the myriad of devices, still the hyperactive commentary in your head, and try to stay in the moment. Notice what is around you. This practice has similiar effects to meditation. Look up, and side to side, far into the distance and also close to your trail – don’t only look at the trail just in front of you. Stop to contemplate and enjoy a flower, tree, lichen, or mushroom. Touch the trunk of a tree (tree huggers had it right all along!). Listen for the taps of woodpeckers, songs of birds, the shuffle of squirrels. Breathe deeply. All these simple processes lower cortisol levels, lower blood pressure,  improve mood and decrease ADD in children.

As you are breathing deeply you will absorb the forest’s phytoncides. These plant-produced chemicals are a plant’s defense system to protect themselves from attack – from insects and bacteria. Phytoncides are being researched to find exactly how they work within our bodies – because there is a proven synergy where the human body has learned to utilize these tree-produced chemicals (good voc’s – volatile organic compounds) to bolster its own defense systems. These chemicals work on the cellular level to increase our bodies’ fight against disease – even major diseases like cancer. They are antibacterial and antifungal and boost our immune systems by increasing the activity of  ‘natural killer cells’ which attack invasive cells in our bodies. Our bodies can’t produce phytoncides, but they know how to utilize them – and the positive effects last for days after contact has ended.

This discovery is seductively interesting: extrapolate what it can mean for long-term health for anyone with regular access to walking in a forest!

How much ‘forest bathing’ do you need? Mary Carol Hunter of the University of Michigan’s research indicates that just 10 minutes in nature 2-3 times a week begins to show beneficial changes to mental health, cortisol levels, and with increased time short term memory began to show improvement. Twenty minutes a day ‘significantly’ boosts vitality levels – based on an older study.

Walk slowly. Breath deeply. Take your time ‘bathing’ on Altona’s trails and enjoy an increased sense of vitality, energy, and resilience to illness!

(Please please please…. don’t take it too literally! I don’t want to find you bathing with the frogs in the amphibian pond!)

Resources ~ Begin your reading here:

Join Us – Get Started With a Free Guided Hike in Altona Forest

Forest Bathing ~ © 2016 Natasha G

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