Have you heard of forest bathing? Also called “forest therapy,” it really just means spending time in the forest. But the term also refers to the health benefits we get by doing so. The concept comes from Japan, where, like in many other places, people recognized that they felt better and even physically healthier by spending more time outside in nature. In recent years, researchers in Japan have been conducting medical studies to measure the effects of spending time in nature on the body. What they found might surprise you.
Participants in the studies who spent time in nature had:
- Decreased Inflammation: Multiple studies found that people who spent time in the forest had measurably less biological markers of inflammation compared to those who stayed in urban environments.
- Reduced Oxidative Stress: Oxidative stress is what ages us. And antioxidants counter this oxidative stress, thereby slowing the aging process. Thus, taking a walk in a forest is akin to an antioxidant power boost!
- Better Immune System Function: Spending time in the forest improved immune function and reduced immune dysfunction. It strengthened weak immune systems and regulated overactive ones. In studies where immune system cells and signaling molecules were measured before and after forest bathing, the health-regulating immune cells increased after a period of time in the forest, while dysfunctional immune activity went down.
- Decreased Levels of Stress Hormones: Forest bathers had lower levels of adrenaline and cortisol, two major stress-related hormones. Even neurotransmitters in the brain such as dopamine and serotonin seemed to be more balanced in the forest bathers.
- Better Mood: Not surprisingly, people who spent time in the forest reported feeling less stressed. They felt more relaxed, “natural,” and had feelings of restoration. They had less tension, less depression, less anxiety, less confusion, less fatigue, and less anger or hostility.
- Lower Blood Pressure: Forest bathers had measurably lower blood pressure. Even those who initially had high blood pressure were able to lower it by spending time in the forest. Forest bathers also had a lowered their pulse rate.
- Better Blood Sugar Control: Even diabetic patients were able to benefit from forest therapy. It can actually help the body to maintain better blood sugar levels.
- Increased Vitality and Vigor: People who spent time in the forest felt more alive and more energetic, while simultaneously feeling more relaxed and peaceful.
The above benefits can be found with forest bathing alone, but some studies also looked at the effects of spending time outdoors combined with exercise. Not surprisingly, the benefits are further increased. People who spend time in nature feel better than those who don’t, people who exercise feel better than those who don’t, and people who exercise in a natural setting feel the best of all. By combining the two, we get exponential benefits.
One deterrent to being outside in the Spring for some people is allergies. If you have allergies, the very idea of spending more time outside might seem to bring on that familiar runny nose, itchy eyes, coughing, sneezing, etc. However, forest bathing along with targeted immunotherapy may improve, and perhaps eradicate, the body’s tendency to react against air-borne triggers.
Most of us seem to know that we feel better when we spend time in nature, and here on Whidbey Island we are incredibly fortunate to be surrounded by so much beautiful forest! It is unfortunate that life’s distractions can sometimes get in the way of simple pleasures like going for a walk in the forest. It is empowering to have dedicated scientific research to show the profound benefits of spending time outside, because sometimes it’s nice to have a little reminder.
Time for a walk.