Latitude News reader Djeendjeen asked that we look into Shinrin-yoku, a Japanese practice called that translates loosely as “Forest Bathing.”
“Forest bathing,” we said. “Hmmm.”
Turns out that forest bathing, coined in 1982 by the Japanese Forest Agency, isn’t a literal act. It’s more like bathing in the experience of being in the woods. And it appears to have significant benefits to our bodies.
John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, knew this intuitively. But the Japanese have taken the lead in scientifically proving it.
Japan’s foremost expert in forest medicine, Yoshifumi Miyazaki, director of the Center for Environment Health and Field Sciences at Chiba University, found that merely contemplating a forest scene for as little as 20 minutes lowered the concentration of salivary cortisone, a stress hormone in his subjects.
“Humans had lived in nature for 5 million years. We were made to fit a natural environment. So we feel stress in an urban area,” Miyazaki told The Japan Times in 2008. “When we are exposed to nature, our bodies go back to how they should be.”
Another Japanese researcher found that spending time in a forest improved the immune system in ways that should help the body fend off cancer.
The Japanese government has set up more than two dozen ‘forest therapy’ bases that allow for walking in wooded areas.
So why does forest bathing work? In a paper published in 2010 in the journal Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine, Miyazaki and two other researchers argue that forests bring benefits to us because we evolved with them, and are biologically inclined to benefit from things “such as the odor of wood, the sound of running stream water, and the scenery of the forest.” They propose our body chemistry responds to phytoncides, chemical compounds forests release to combat rot and insects.
Another study, also publishedin 2010 in Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine, showed that “forest environments can relieve human psychological tension, depression, anger, fatigue, and confusion, and moreover, that they can enhance human psychological vigor.”
These studies and others find that while forest bathing generally is effective at lowering stress, different types of forests seem to affect people in different ways. Denser forests with dim lighting reduce anger more effectively, for instance, and forests with lower humidity reduce fatigue, some types of forests seem to bolster potential cancer resistance, nicely summed up here.
Again, forest bathing doesn’t take a lot of time. The subjects in these studies walked only a few kilometers, at a pace of their own choosing (as little as a mile seemed to have almost the same benefits as a longer walk).
The studies don’t address how the same evolutionary environment also caused us to develop a “fight or flight” reaction that seems to underpin a good deal of modern stress. Maybe, in modern times, forests are less dangerous places than cities.
Virtual forest bathing won’t have the same effect, but it can whet your appetite for the real thing. So we’ve included this short video. Don’t forget, when you go, stash the iPod and the cell phone out of reach. If you’re going to bathe in the forest, you need to disconnect.