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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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