Because I'm a very lucky girl, I live about 45 minutes from Rocky Mountain National Park. And because I'm a very, VERY lucky girl, I get to treat Rocky as my summer tent-away-from-home.
We've been hiking and camping a few times already through moraine, forest and tundra, and I'm always amazed at how quickly being in the park (and disconnected from devices) helps me to reset faster than even meditation or yoga.
I'm a curious girl, so I took a dive into what the science might be behind my tree-ful bliss, and I stumbled upon this gem: in Japanese culture, there's an idea known “shinrin-yoku,” meaning “forest bath.”
The idea of forest bathing was developed in Japan in the 80s and has drawn the attention not only of long-term nature lovers but also scientific researchers.
Luckily for me, forest baths aren’t about bagging peaks or strenuous hiking – it’s simply drawing on the benefits of walking under the forest canopy and connecting to your natural surroundings.
Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Researchers have already attributed to forest bathing to reduced stress, lower blood pressure, boosted immune function, more energy, better mood and even faster recovery from illness or even surgery.
If you're at all like me, your first thought is YES, PLEASE!
Let’s look a little more in-depth at the first three items on this list.
#1 – Reduce your stress levels
This may be the easiest to anticipate yet the most profound benefit of forest bathing.
While logic and life-experience points to the relaxing benefits of being outdoors, a team of Japanese researchers set out to quantify the stress-reducing benefits of spending time in the forest.
Field experiments were conducted in 24 forests across Japan – in each experiment, 12 subjects walked either in a wooded or urban environment. Six went to the woods, six went to the city, then on the next day the groups switched.
Before and after each visit, researchers collected data looking at cortisol levels, pulse rate, blood pressure and changes in heart rate – all key indicators of the body’s stress response.
The results show that forest environments promoted lower levels of cortisol, lower pulse rate, lower blood pressure, greater parasympathetic nerve activity, and lower sympathetic nerve activity than do city environments.
According to researchers: “The results of the physiological measurements suggest that Shinrin-yoku [forest bathing] can aid in effectively relaxing the human body.”
#2 – Lower your blood pressure
Not only can you feel more relaxed from being outside, but you can actually lower your blood pressure by forest bathing.
A study out of Japan published in 2012 looked at the effects of forest bathing (compared to time spent in an urban area) in older adults, studying a number of factors, including inflammation, mood and blood pressure.
Study participants went on a seven-day trip to a leaved, evergreen forest, while the control group was sent to a city area.
While the control group showed no significant changes in their results, the forest bathing group had significant improvements in blood pressure and bio-markers that indicate lower inflammatory levels, supporting better cardiovascular health.
#3– Boost your immune health
Not just your heart benefits from being in the woods – you also get a significant (and profound) immune lift that lasts.
A 2010 study based in Japan looked at the particular immune-boosting benefits of forest bathing.
Study participants were taken on a three-day trip to the forest, and then had blood work analyzed after 2 days, 3 days, 7 days and 30 days to look specifically at the levels of NK (natural killer) cells in the body.
The control group of adults merely went about their normal work days, and had identical analysis done on NK cell levels and NK cell activity.
Natural killer (NK) cells are a type of white blood cell that play a major role in your body’s immune system, specifically by protecting your body from virus-infected and cancerous cells.
Researchers found that not only were NK levels significantly higher after just two days in the forest for study participants, but that there were residual effects.
This increased NK activity lasted for more than 30 days from the trip, suggesting that a monthly visit to the forest might be enough for a lasting immune benefit.
How much green do you need?
As these studies show, the beneficial effects of time under the trees can last for weeks.
How much green time do you need to achieve results? A 2010 meta-analysis looking specifically at the effects of “green exercise” on mood and self-esteem found that results were almost instantaneous, which participants experience a lift in mood in just under five minutes.
In fact, the boost to mood and self-esteem from time spent out-of-doors was found to be independent of duration, intensity, location, gender, age and health status.
So, if you need a quick boost to your mood or self-esteem, duck outside for even a few minutes for nearly instant results. As the researchers noted: “Exposure to nature via green exercise can be thus conceived as a readily available therapy with no obvious side effects.”
What’s your relationship with the forest? I’d love to hear more about your walking meditations, forest baths and other outdoor adventures.
Adapted from content initially published by Vital Choice Wild Seafood & Organics.