We all know that eating greens is essential, but did you know that even being surrounded by green things can improve your health? It's a popular theory in Japan and South Korea that has spawned the practice of forest bathing – and it's well past the time to give it a try.
In Japan and South Korea, the idea of shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, encourages people to get outside and into green spaces every day for improved mental and physical health. The practice has nothing to do with exercise, but rather with communing with nature and allowing the stresses and worries of daily life to flow out of you.
Dr. Frank Lipman, integrative medicine specialist and author of the book How to Be Well, thinks that Westerners would do well to adopt the practice, given our stressful lifestyles.
"[It] involves quietly immersing oneself in the sensory atmosphere of trees to restore well-being and soothe a harried mind,” he says. "Doing nothing in nature but being present to the experience initiates a cascade of beneficial effects."
What Are the Benefits of Forest Bathing?
Most Americans these days are “on” all the time; a barrage of stressors sends our systems into "flight" mode nearly constantly, as though we were perpetually trying to outrun a larger predator.
This "flight" mode causes our bodies to release hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, which are beneficial in high-stress situations, as they maintain blood pressure and regulate some inessential body functions, like digestion, to allow the body to focus on fleeing. But when these hormones become a constant presence in our bodies, they can have detrimental effects on immunity, blood pressure, and metabolic health.
When forest bathing, Lipman explains, the parasympathetic nervous system switches on and cortisol drops, allowing essential involuntary processes, such as digestion, to take place properly.
“The brain’s prefrontal cortex — your hard-driving command center — takes a break as you drift into a soft-focus state of awareness,” explains Lipman. “This allows you to shift from information overload to a state of pleasure, let go of negative thought cycles and rejuvenate your mental energy, and even access a wellspring of creativity and concentration.”
The physical benefits of this practice are well-documented, particularly in Japan. One 2016 study in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine found that forest bathing reduced pulse rate and “significantly” decreased depression, fatigue, anxiety, and confusion in middle-aged males, and a 2010 study in the official journal of the Japanese Society for Hygiene, Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine found that forest bathing improved immune function in both male and female test subjects. A 2007 study even found that forest bathing could reduce the risk of cancer.
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Lipman also notes that empathy and altruism increase after forest bathing, thus leading to greater social connectivity, something we’re all sorely lacking in this digital age. A 2017 literature review found that nature therapy like forest bathing could be used as a health-promotion method for “the reduction of reported modern-day ‘stress-state’ and ‘technostress.’”
How to Forest Bathe
This is all well and good when you live near a forest, but what about the millions of us who live in urban centers?
Luckily, it turns out you don't actually need to be in a forest to reap the benefits of forest bathing... but you do need to get outside (something that a study by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that we don't do – according to the study, adults only spend an average of 5 percent of their day outdoors).
Lipman suggests starting small.
“Even just sitting or walking in a natural environment, like a park, can be a successful forest bath,” explains Lipman. “Anytime you immerse yourself in nature and become fully present, you are successful.”
Finnish researchers developing antidotes to depression prescribe several short forest baths per week, Lipman says; their research has shown that 40 minutes is the ideal duration of a forest bath, but even short bursts can be helpful to begin reaping the benefits.
“Rejuvenation can also be as simple as a lunch break on a bench in a botanic garden or lounging in a park looking at puffy clouds — two options for time-pressed urbanites,” says Lipman.
So take some time on your lunch break or even a half-hour before work and go for a wander among the trees; your body – and your mind – will thank you.
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