Go outside and play! As a child I heard this refrain a lot and luckily ‘outside’ was a mountainside of bushland and green space. Spending time in nature has long been promoted as healthy but recently the concept of forest bathing has hit social media. In Japan, forest bathing, or as it is known ‘shinrin yoku’ is a recognised and promoted as therapy. Specifically it is defined as: ‘making contact with and taking in the atmosphere of the forest: a process intended to improve an individual’s state of mental and physical relaxation’ (Park et al., 2010).
While it is not surprising there is a ‘backlash’ to the rise of environmental stress from built environments, technology, artificial light exposure etc, one of the reasons we respond so positively to nature and natural environments is explained by the concept of biophilia, which proposes that we all have an innate connection and the desire to seek out nature and other forms of life (animals, plants). Children in particular are seen to be connected with and supported by nature. Lack of access to natural environments, caused largely by increasing urbanisation potentially contributes to childhood health disorders such as hyperactivity, attention deficit disorders, obesity and depression…disorders that have also been termed ‘nature-deficit disorder’.
Looking at the research, it is not just children that benefit from time in nature; there are some significant health benefits for all ages. Forest bathing has been shown to help with mood disorders, improved self-esteem and physical fitness, and a wide array of other health benefits including (references available upon request):
- 15 minutes of viewing or walking in a forest reduced the stress hormone cortisol, pulse rate and blood pressure and increased feelings of relaxation.
- Compared to city walking, those walking in nature showed less anger, fatigue, confusion and tension scores, and enhanced psychological vigour.
- Enhanced immune function
- Reduced widespread pain and depression
- Other studies have shown:
- improved metabolic and cardiovascular indices in middle aged men
- improved quality of life in postmenopausal women
- reduced inflammation and stress hormones in elderly patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
- reduced inflammatory and oxidative stress in young adults and
- less hyperactivity and improved relaxation in school children
As you can see from point 5, time spend in nature is beneficial for all ages. Science bit – the positive effects of forest bathing are currently seen to be the result of the interplay between the nervous, endocrine and immune systems, whereby a less stressful environment encourages the parasympathetic nervous system reducing blood pressure and heart rate and reduces stress hormones to induce a relaxed state. Stress hormones inhibit immune function so the relaxed state brought indirectly acts on the immune system to improve immune resilience.
Tips for forest bathing or spending relaxing time in nature (Li, 2012):
- Plan your time to suit your own ability. If you are active a bush or forest walk is appropriate but if you are not physically able, perhaps a drive to a local green spot with a fold up chair and then just sit and enjoy the view. Many of the research studies above assess both forest viewing and forest walking and the outcomes were similar so it isn’t just about activity…it is of course about the magic of being in natural green spaces.
- Anywhere from 15 minutes to the entire day can be spent in nature. Enjoy the time you have without watching the clock. Part of the joy of the forest is the lack of technology.
- If you are active, rest when needed and drink water when thirsty.
- Take a book and a blanket. Read, enjoy the scenery or just sit for a while. There is no pressure to do anything or be anywhere.
I did a quick search of green spaces and local walks within 30km of Brisbane (my local area) and there are some great options both within Brisbane and the immediate surrounds:
So in the spirit and practice of ‘shinrin yoku’ I am off to bathe in the healing greenness of my local nature reserve.
Li, Q., 2012. Forest medicine. New York, NY: Nova Science Publishers.
Park, B.J., Tsunetsugu, Y., Kasetani, T., Kagawa, T. and Miyazaki, Y., 2010. The physiological effects of Shinrin-yoku (taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing): evidence from field experiments in 24 forests across Japan. Environmental health and preventive medicine, 15(1), pp.18-26.