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New book on how “Forest Bathing” can promote physical and mental health

– The Kumano Kodo trail in Japan

Nature deficit dis­or­der” is a mod­ern afflic­tion. With more peo­ple liv­ing in cities, work­ing in high-rise office build­ings, and becom­ing addict­ed to their innu­mer­able elec­tron­ic devices, many of us are indeed expe­ri­enc­ing a nature deficit. This is true for chil­dren and adults alike.

In his new book, For­est Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Hap­pi­ness, Japan­ese med­ical doc­tor and researcher Qing Li presents some sober­ing sta­tis­tics: By 2050, accord­ing to the Unit­ed Nations Pop­u­la­tion Divi­sion, three quar­ters of the world’s peo­ple will live in cities. Even now, the aver­age Amer­i­can spends 93 per­cent of the time indoors, and some ten hours a day on social media—more than they spend asleep.

In Japan, there’s enough aware­ness about this deficit that Li heads up an orga­ni­za­tion called The Japan­ese Soci­ety of For­est Med­i­cine, which pro­motes research on the ther­a­peu­tic effects of forests on human health and edu­cates peo­ple on the prac­tice of for­est bathing. His book—a com­pan­ion to the cen­ter he runs—explores research on these ben­e­fits, while offer­ing a num­ber of tech­niques we can use to enhance them.

Some peo­ple study forests. Some peo­ple study med­i­cine. I study for­est med­i­cine to find out all the ways in which walk­ing in the for­est can improve our well-being,” writes Li.

The history of forest bathing

Japan is a coun­try that is both urban­ized and heav­i­ly forest­ed. Trees cov­er two-thirds of the island’s land­mass, and yet a major­i­ty of Japan’s peo­ple live in crowd­ed city con­di­tions. Li him­self lives in Tokyo, a city he describes as “the most crowd­ed city in the world.”

Per­haps that’s why the art of “for­est bathing”—shinrin-yoku—began there. For­est bathing involves slow­ly walk­ing through a for­est, tak­ing in the atmos­phere through all your sens­es, and enjoy­ing the ben­e­fits that come from such an excur­sion.

In 1982, Japan launched a nation­al pro­gram to encour­age for­est bathing, and in 2004, a for­mal study of the link between forests and human health began in Iiya­ma, Japan—a place par­tic­u­lar­ly known for its lush, green forests. Now, each year upwards of 2.5 mil­lion peo­ple walk those for­est trails as a way to ease stress and enhance health.

Li’s inter­est in for­est research began when he was a stressed-out med­ical stu­dent. He went away for a week of for­est camp­ing, and found it restored his phys­i­cal and emo­tion­al health. That inspired him to begin research­ing the ben­e­fits of forests on human health and well-being. In 2004, he helped found the For­est Ther­a­py Study Group, aimed at find­ing out why being among trees makes us feel so much bet­ter.

The healing power of the forest

After years of care­ful study, Li has found that spend­ing time in a for­est can reduce stress, anx­i­ety, depres­sion, and anger; strength­en the immune sys­tem; improve car­dio­vas­cu­lar and meta­bol­ic health; and boost over­all well-being.

Wher­ev­er there are trees, we are health­i­er and hap­pi­er,” writes Li. And, he adds, it isn’t about exercising—like hik­ing or jogging—it’s sim­ply about being in nature.

Why would this be? It’s long been rec­og­nized that humans have a bio­log­i­cal need to con­nect with nature. Some 20 years ago, Amer­i­can biol­o­gist E. O. Wil­son not­ed that humans are “hard­wired” to con­nect with the nat­ur­al world, and that being in nature had a pro­found­ly pos­i­tive effect on human health.

Li’s research seems to cor­rob­o­rate this. For exam­ple, one of his stud­ies looked at whether for­est bathing could improve sleep pat­terns among mid­dle-aged Tokyo office work­ers who tend­ed to suf­fer sleep defi­cien­cy due to high lev­els of stress. Dur­ing the study, par­tic­i­pants walked the same amount of time in a for­est that they usu­al­ly did in a non-for­est set­ting on a nor­mal work­ing day. After a walk in the for­est, par­tic­i­pants were sig­nif­i­cant­ly less anx­ious, slept bet­ter, and slept longer. In addi­tion, researchers found that after­noon walks were even more ben­e­fi­cial than morn­ing walks.

You sleep bet­ter when you spend time in a for­est, even when you don’t increase the amount of phys­i­cal activ­i­ty you do,” report­ed Li.

To fur­ther assess the effects of time spent in a for­est, Li mea­sured people’s moods before and after walk­ing in the woods or in an urban envi­ron­ment. While oth­er stud­ies have shown that walk­ing any­where out­doors reduces depres­sion, anx­i­ety, and anger, Li found that only the expe­ri­ence of walk­ing in a for­est improved people’s vig­or and reduced fatigue.

The health secrets of trees seem to lie in two things—the high­er con­cen­tra­tion of oxy­gen that exists in a for­est, as com­pared to an urban set­ting, and the pres­ence of plant chem­i­cals called phytoncides—natural oils that are part of a plant’s defense sys­tem against bac­te­ria, insects, and fun­gi. Expo­sure to these sub­stances, says Li, can have mea­sur­able health ben­e­fits for humans. Phys­i­o­log­i­cal stress is reduced, for exam­ple, and both blood pres­sure and heart rate are low­ered. Evergreens—pine, cedar, spruce, and conifers—are the largest pro­duc­ers of phy­ton­cides, so walk­ing in an ever­green for­est seems to have the great­est health ben­e­fits.

How to do forest bathing

So, is there a spe­cif­ic art to for­est bathing? Or is it just as easy as a walk in the woods?

Con­nect­ing with nature is sim­ple, writes Li. “All we have to do is accept the invi­ta­tion. Moth­er Nature does the rest.” Here are some of his sug­gest­ed steps.

Find a spot. Depend­ing where you are, find a good source of nature. One doesn’t need to jour­ney deep into a for­est for these ben­e­fits. Just look for any green area. It could be an urban park, a nature pre­serve, or a trail through sub­ur­ban woods. Forests with conifers are thought to be par­tic­u­lar­ly ben­e­fi­cial.

Let your body be your guide. Lis­ten to where it wants to take you,” Li says. Some peo­ple will respond to sun­ny glades, oth­ers to shadier places. Lis­ten to your own wis­dom. For peo­ple who don’t have access to a for­est, or can’t get out­side for some rea­son, infus­ing essen­tial tree oils in your home can pro­vide ben­e­fits, too.

Engage all your sens­es. “Let nature enter through your ears, eyes, nose, mouth, hands, and feet,” says Li. Active­ly lis­ten, smell, touch, and look. “Drink in the fla­vor of the for­est and release your sense of joy and calm.”

Don’t hur­ry. Slow walk­ing is rec­om­mend­ed for begin­ners. And it’s good to spend as much time as pos­si­ble. You’ll notice pos­i­tive effects after twen­ty min­utes, says Li, but a longer vis­it, ide­al­ly four hours, is bet­ter.

Try dif­fer­ent activ­i­ties. Try doing yoga in the woods, or Tai chi, or med­i­ta­tion. Take a pic­nic. Write a poem. Study plants. You can ven­ture alone, or with a com­pan­ion. In Japan, for­est walk­ing ther­a­pists are even avail­able.

Appre­ci­ate the silence. One of the down­sides of urban liv­ing is the con­stant noise. If you’re lucky, you’ll find a wood­ed area that’s free from human-pro­duced sound. Silence is restora­tive, and a for­est can have its own heal­ing sound—rustling leaves, a trick­le of water, bird­song. Spend a few qui­et moments with a favorite tree. If noth­ing else, when we con­nect with nature we are remind­ed that we are part of a larg­er whole. And that, Li notes, can lead us to be less self­ish and to think more of oth­ers.

Li’s book, which includes illus­tra­tions and a map of “40 Beau­ti­ful Forests Across the World,” is an invi­ta­tion and an inspi­ra­tion to take a walk in the woods, wher­ev­er you are.

– Karin Evans is a long­time jour­nal­ist, author, and fre­quent con­trib­u­tor to Mind­ful mag­a­zine. Copy­right Greater Good. Based at UC-Berke­ley, Greater Good high­lights ground break­ing sci­en­tif­ic research into the roots of com­pas­sion and altru­ism.

To learn more and order new book: For­est Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Hap­pi­ness, by Japan­ese med­ical doc­tor and researcher Qing Li .

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As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters,  SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking how brain science can improve our health and our lives.

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