Is a walk in the forest good medicine?

Okay – I’ve neglected this blog for a while — so, time to add some new stories!  Here’s one on forest bathing.  What on earth…?  Read on:

Is a Walk in the Woods Good Medicine?

by Jamie Simpson

“I always feel better when I’m in the forest,” my friend said spontaneously, turning to me with a smile. Her comment took me by surprise. We had just stepped into a pine, spruce and hemlock forest, but we were there to go rock climbing. The forest was just something between us and the cliffs. “Yeah,” I said after a pause, thinking about her comment, “I know what you mean.” I looked around at the afternoon light falling here and there on the forest floor, filtered through the tree tops. I breathed the scent of the summer-warmed pine needles. We were fresh out of a five-hour car ride, and too long of a spell in the city. I felt my shoulders relax a little, my mind ease, with each step into the woods, with each breath of forest air. She was right; we did feel better for being in the woods.

I’ve often thought back to my friend’s comment, and wondered what it was about being in a forest that feels good. To be sure, I’ve spent a lot of time in the woods, and some of it would be better described as suffering than sublime. The heat, the cold, the rain, the bugs. But without a doubt, I know that I need my quota of forest-time to feel my best in body, mind and soul. I started to read up on the claimed health benefits of time spent in a forest. Turns out lots of others have noticed this phenomenon too. Not just the poets and nature-lovers, but also scientists studying the connection between forests and human health.

Dr. Elizabeth Nisbet, a psychology professor with Trent University and Carleton University, has found that people with more “nature connection” tend to have better emotional and mental health. Nature, her research suggests, can be thought of as a mood-booster or source of happiness that we can all tap into. The important message, she says, is to make sure we incorporate nature time into our routines, just as with healthy eating and exercise, in order to promote healthy minds and bodies.

In Japan, citizens partake in the practice of “forest bathing” to promote health. There’s no bathtub involved; rather, it’s simply about being immersed in a forest. Japanese and other medical researchers suggest that time spent in the forest correlates with reduced blood pressure, anxiety, stress and depression, thereby helping to reduce stress-related diseases. Researchers also claim that time in the forest improves our immune systems, thanks, it’s suggested, to breathing certain chemical compounds (phytoncides) released by trees into the air. Other claimed benefits of time spent in a forest include increased ability to focus, accelerated recovery from surgery or illness, and improved sleeping ability. Others have caught on as well. The New York State government encourages its citizens to get out into the woods for the variety of health benefits time in the forest provides.

I’m curious to watch how the research on the health benefits of forest bathing progresses. Perhaps chemicals released by trees really do bolster our immune systems. Perhaps something about the visual aspects of a forest trigger a calming influence in our brains. If so, maybe schools should make time for taking students out into the woods, perhaps combined with biology lessons. Perhaps employers could benefit from encouraging their employees to take regular forest time breaks in local forested parks. At any rate, I know that my mind and body feel better for a walk in the woods, whatever the reasons. A ramble in the forest and the smell of pine trees sounds like good medicine to me.

[Originally published in the Chronicle Herald, September 28th, 2013]

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