The benefits of spending time in the Great Outdoors are no secret. Throughout history, great teachers, thinkers, and poets have extolled the virtues and benefits of communing with nature and maintaining a connection with the natural world. Aiming to combat the information and stress overload that all too often accompanies contemporary urban life, a new well-being movement known as “forest bathing” has become one of the fastest-growing health trends in many cities around the world.
Known in Japan as shinrin-yoku and in Korea as sanlimyok, forest bathing is all about encouraging people to turn their attention away from glowing LCD screens to rest their eyes in shades of green; to—at least temporarily—forsake the constant flow of information and immerse themselves in the peaceful, healing influence of the woods. From Tokyo and Seoul to California and Mumbai, a growing number of people are seeking a salve to ease the frictions of urban living; indeed, a 2001 survey sponsored by the US Environmental Protection Agency found that, on average, Americans spend 87 per cent of their lives indoors and 6 per cent inside a vehicle.
With the perils of city life having been plain since the earliest years of the modern age, from mountaineer and forester Finis Mitchel (1901–95) to authors Henry David Thoreau (1817–62) and Mark Twain (1835–1910), the need to reconnect with nature is not a new idea. More recently, science has sought to demonstrate and underline what was once surely taken as common sense—that spending time in natural environments lowers stress levels, improves memory, and helps us feel more alive and “in” the world.
“There have been studies comparing walking in nature with walking in an urban environment and testing people on their mood, different aspects of depression, and in some cases, brain scans,” said David Yaden, a research fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center. “In the natural setting, people are more relaxed and less stressed.” (The Washington Post)
A 2010 study that collated data collected from field experiments conducted in 24 forests across Japan found that subjects who participated in forest bathing had lower blood pressure, slower heart rates, and reduced levels of the stress hormone salivary cortisol compared with those who walked through urban environments. Similar studies carried out in other countries, including Finland and the US, have echoed these results.
Eva Selhub and Alan Logan, whose book Your Brain on Nature examines not only the effects of nature on the brain, but also how the influence of technology may even be changing it, concur: “Spending time within a forest setting can reduce psychological stress, depressive symptoms and hostility, while at the same time improving sleep, increasing both vigor and a feeling of liveliness” (Selhub and Logan 2013, 17).
Professional proponents of the forest-bathing trend insist that the practice differs from more traditional hiking or nature walks because of its focus on the therapeutic. “Whereas a nature walk’s objective is to provide informational content and a hike’s is to reach a destination, a Shinrin-yoku walk’s objective is to give participants an opportunity to slow down, appreciate things that can only be seen or heard when one is moving slowly, and take a break from the stress of their daily lives,” said Ben Page, a certified forest therapy guide and founder of Shinrin Yoku Los Angeles, which offers a variety of forest-bathing programs for urbanites in California from US$20 upwards. (The Washington Post)
In Japan, shinrin-yoku has become a cornerstone of preventative healthcare. The Forest Agency of the Japanese government first launched its shinrin-yoku program in 1982 as a means of promoting health and decreasing stress levels. Today, forest bathing is a recognized form of relaxation and stress management. Similarly, in Korea, the practice has also been integrated into the national medical system, where it is covered by insurance.
In the words of the Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson (1850–94): “It is not so much for its beauty that the forest makes a claim upon men’s hearts, as for that subtle something, that quality of air, that emanation from old trees, that so wonderfully changes and renews a weary spirit” (Stevenson 1905, 170).
Selhub, Eva M., and Logan, Alan C. 2013. Your Brain on Nature. New York: Harper Collins
Stevenson, Robert Louis. 1905. Essays of Travel. London: Chatto & Windus