Mae West, the American movie star who rarely lacked lifestyle advice, once conceded, “If in doubt, take a bath.” She did not have a forestry executive in mind. But did you know that forest baths can be just as therapeutic as a foam bath?
Some people gravitate towards the outdoors, even in bad weather. Others are more comfortable in front of the fireplace. But a walk in the woods might just be the remedy you could use after months of home confinement. An overview of the research surrounding this little-known ‘forest bath’ therapy offers insight into the benefits, including improved cardiovascular function, brain activity, immune system, self-esteem and health. reduction of anxiety and depression.
According to Ann Martin, a forest therapy guide certified by 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 forestry agency to link forest visits to health.
During the 1980s, as Japan industrialized and became a technological society, symptoms of chronic stress appeared in the population. Researchers have documented the physiological effects of people walking through wooded areas. Martin says, âThe forestry therapy we know in North America is inspired by shinrin-yoku and also weaves several other wellness practices.
A forest therapy walk involves spending a few hours in the forest or nature and slowing down to focus on connecting with nature. âThe idea is not only to experience the psychological benefits of being in the forest, but also to have open psychological effects – such as improved mood and feelings of well-being,â notes Martin. “Sometimes we are not even aware of the subtle changes that take place when we allow ourselves to truly experience a connection with the natural world.”
When stressed, the human body produces adrenaline and cortisol, hormones linked to heart disease, metabolic disease, dementia and depression. Evergreen trees emit pine-smelling volatile organic compounds, also known as phytoncides. These chemical compounds have properties that decrease the production of adrenaline and cortisol and lead to benefits such as lowering blood pressure.
A systematic review of forest bathing research looked at more than 200 studies conducted over a five-year period. Research has shown that âforest swimming activities could have the following merits: remarkably improving cardiovascular function, hemodynamic indexes, neuroendocrine indexes, metabolic indexes, immune and inflammatory indexes, antioxidant indexes and electrophysiological indexes; significantly improve the emotional state, attitude and feelings of people towards things, physical and psychological recovery and adaptive behaviors; and obvious relief from anxiety and depression. It’s quite a list. Be careful, there were no negative side effects. (It would be a good idea, however, to avoid walking in tick-infested areas or sitting on a honeycomb!)
Dr. Susan Abookire, assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, who is also a forest therapy guide, explains, âEven people confined to a hospital bed can benefit from nature viewing. She refers to a study comparing patients with gallbladder surgery who recover in a hospital room with a window to those who only have a view of a brick wall. “People who could see nature recovered faster and needed less potent pain relievers than those who could not see nature.”
So, the next time you feel the urge to take a bath, think about another famous quote from Mae West: âToo much good can be wonderful. And go take a bath in the forest.
Dr. W. Gifford-Jones, aka Ken Walker, is a graduate of the University of Toronto and Harvard Medical School. You can reach him online at his website, doggiff.com, or by email at [email protected]