Try forest bathing to reduce stress and prevent illness

Published September 18, 2022, 4:46 PM

by Pinky Concha-Colmenares

It’s back to Mother Nature for many people seeking a way to lower stress levels, and thus prevent illness and disease.

It starts with a ritual called forest bathing or forest therapy which is supported by a growing body of scientific research which has measured its many benefits. One significant effect is the lowering of blood pressure (for those with high blood pressure) 15 minutes after engaging in forest bathing.

There are many groups around the world practicing forest bathing, or “shinrin-yoku,” a term coined in 1982 by Tomohide Akiyama, director of the Japanese Forestry Agency. The concept focuses on walking slowly through the forest and bathing “in the environment of the forest, using all your senses to experience nature up close.”

(Unsplash photo)

Yoshifumi Miyazaki, a university professor, researcher and the deputy director of Chiba University’s Centre for Environment, Health and Field Sciences, has published many books on the effects and benefits of forest therapy. In his book “Shinrin-yoku: The Japanese way of Forest Bathing for Health and Relaxation,” Mr. Miyazaki discussed how his research studies have measured the benefits of taking a long slow walk in the forest.

Calling the practice “nature therapy” or “forest therapy,” Mr. Miyazaki traces its effects to man’s connection to nature. “Humans have spent over 99.99 percent of their time throughout history in a natural environment.”

That is why when we come into contact with nature, we feel relaxed. “That is because our bodies (including our genes) were made to be adapted to nature.”

His studies have shown that when people are in a natural environment, they reported feeling relaxed. Stress is reduced. “This simple act helps to regulate the nervous system, promoting a healthier balance between activation and relaxation. In this way, illness can be prevented and a healthy way of living is maintained.”

Nature therapy, he emphasized many times in the book, is a “preventive approach to lower stress levels, improve quality of life and potentially reduce the cost and strain on health services that stress-related illnesses cause.”

His research has shown that through the simple act of walking in a forest, people experience many benefits during and after a session of forest therapy.

Here are the benefits of forest therapy which his studies have measured:

  • Improvement of weakened immunity, with an increase in the count of natural killer (NK) cells, which are known to fight tumors and infection.
  • Increased relaxation of the body due to increased activity in the parasympathetic nervous system.
  • Reduced stress of the body due to a reduction in sympathetic nervous system activity.
  • Reduction in blood pressure after only 15 minutes of forest therapy.
  • Reduced feelings of stress and a general sense of wellbeing.
  • Reduction of blood pressure after one day of forest therapy, which lasts up to five days after therapy.

An interesting study on the restorative power of nature is also mentioned in the book. It studied the effect of the view from a window of patients who went through gall bladder removal. Scientists in Pennsylvania studied the patients who were recovering in the hospital. Some of the patients were in rooms with a view of nature, while the rest had windows that faced a brick wall.

They found that “patients with a view of a nature left the hospital sooner and requested for less painkillers during their stay.”

The study on the benefits of nature therapy also included the effect of plants in the house, the smell of wood and essential oils, and gardening. Many elements of nature have the same beneficial effects as shinrin-yoku, and he recommended ideas “to bring the forest closer to home,” and reduce stress.
If you are interested in pursuing forest bathing, there are many books and articles about that online. A book I picked up years ago – “The Healing Magic of Forest Bathing” by Julia Plevin – is a guide on the rituals one can follow to find “calm, creativity and connection in the natural world.”

To Ms. Plevin, forest bathing is “the practice of intentionally connecting to nature as a way to heal. Part mindfulness, part child’s play, it’s a portal into true understanding of yourself and the world around you.”
I’ve been practicing forest bathing for a long time now, although I only became aware that my attachment to the forest had a name after reading about it. As a mountaineer, I’ve hiked through many forests and reached the summits. In the forest, I am a cheerful person and I do not complain, even if I am tired and wet from the rain. I just feel happy. Shinrin-yoku explained that to me.

In the first two years of the pandemic, I did forest bathing in our small courtyard which a neighbor had filled with plants. As soon as the border restrictions were lifted, I went to the forest, trekked through two dense trails in one day – and felt happy, energized, and extremely relaxed. (I am a senior citizen.)
In Camp John Hay in Baguio City, there’s a trail specifically marked “forest bathing trail.” It winds through a lovely pine forest which a slow walker can complete in about two hours.

But if that’s too far for you now, remember what Mr. Miyazaki said in his book: “Any space where there are plants growing can offer relaxation effects to those who are prepared to seek them out and spend time there.”

Sometimes, the problem is not finding the green spaces but our busy minds which we cannot set aside to allow our bodies to relax, he pointed out.