Health: Walking in wooded areas beneficial

Dr. W. Gifford-Jones

Mae West, the American movie star who rarely lacked for lifestyle advice, once conceded, “When in doubt, take a bath.” She didn’t have a forest setting in mind. But did you know that forest bathing might be just as therapeutic as a soak in the suds?

Some people gravitate, even in unfavourable weather, to the outdoors. Others are most comfortable in front of the hearth. But a walk in the woods may be just the remedy you could use after months of confinement at home. A glimpse into the research surrounding this little-known “forest bathing” therapy offers insights on benefits including improved cardiovascular function, brain activity, immune systems, self-esteem, and reduced anxiety and depression.

According to Ann Martin, a certified Forest Therapy Guide with the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy, the practice of forest therapy originated in Japan, where it is called shinrin-yoku. The term was coined in 1982 by the director of the Japanese forest agency as a way to link forest visits with health.

During the 1980s, as Japan industrialized becoming a technological society, chronic stress symptoms emerged in the population. Researchers documented the physiological effects of people taking walks in wooded areas. Martin says, “The forest therapy we know in North America is inspired by shinrin-yoku and also weaves together several other wellness practices.”

A forest therapy walk is a process of spending a couple of hours in the forest or out in nature and slowing down to focus on a connection with nature. “The idea is not only to experience the psychological benefits of being in the forest, but also to be open psychological effects as well – like improved mood and feelings of wellness,” Martin notes. “Sometimes we’re not even aware of the subtle changes that happen when we allow ourselves to really experience a connection with the natural world.”

When stressed, the human body produces adrenaline and cortisol, hormones linked to heart disease, metabolic diseases, dementia and depression. Evergreen trees emit piney-smelling volatile organic compounds, also known as phytoncides. These chemical compounds have properties that decrease the production of adrenaline and cortisol and result in benefits such as lower blood pressure.

One systematic review of the research on forest bathing involved more than 200 studies conducted over a five-year period. The research showed that “forest bathing activities might have the following merits: remarkably improving cardiovascular function, hemodynamic indexes, neuroendocrine indexes, metabolic indexes, immunity and inflammatory indexes, antioxidant indexes, and electrophysiological indexes; significantly enhancing people’s emotional state, attitude, and feelings towards things, physical and psychological recovery, and adaptive behaviors; and obvious alleviation of anxiety and depression.” That is quite a list. Take note, there were no negative side effects. (One would be well advised, however, to be aware of any local advisories and avoid walking in tick infested areas or sitting down on a bee’s nest!)

Dr. Susan Abookire, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, who is also a forest therapy guide, explains, “Even people confined to a hospital bed may benefit from viewing nature.” She references a study comparing gallbladder surgery patients recovering in a hospital room with a window to those with only a view of a brick wall. “People who could see nature recovered more quickly and needed less powerful pain medication than people who could not see nature.”

So the next time you feel the urge to take a bath, think about another famous Mae West quote, “Too much of a good thing can be wonderful,” and go have a bath in the forest.

Dr. W. Gifford-Jones can be reached at contact-us@docgiff.com.