Japan's Forest Therapy Combats Both Stress and Depression
Japanese “forest bathing” is on the brink of becoming a medical remedy thanks to scientific research.
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.
Robert Louis Stevenson
Walking around the forest may soon be prescribed by a doctor. In Japan, there’s already a practice called Shinrin-yoku or “forest bathing”, which is standard preventive medicine and one that’s gaining attention around the world. As the name suggests, the activity essentially involves spending time in a forest. Most interestingly, the scientific proof confirms what we’ve always suspected through experience, intuition and books. And Shinrin-yoku protects forests by giving them a valuable “utility” under capitalist governance.
Outside Magazine recently presented a fascinating story about forest therapy in Japan. In it, author Florence Williams says:
It essentially involves hanging out in the woods. It’s not about wilderness; it’s about the nature-civilization hybrid the Japanese have cultivated for thousands of years. You stroll a little, maybe write a haiku, crack open a spicebush twig and inhale its woodsy, sassy scent.
Shinrin-yoku is basically an effort to benefit the Japanese people and to find non-extractive uses for forests, which cover some 67% of the country. Since 2004, the Japanese government has funded some US$4 million in research on these “forest baths.” The intention is to designate a total of 100 forest sites for therapy over a period of 10 years. Visitors, who follow a guide along the therapy route, are routinely called to a cabin for blood pressure checks as part of an effort to provide more information and support for the project. Today there are 48 official routes designated for shinrin-yoku forest therapy by the Agency of Forests in Japan. And this is perhaps some of the most encouraging news we’ve heard in years.
Japan has very good reasons to require relief. In addition to extremely long work days, pressure and competition for schools and jobs, it has the third highest suicide rate in the developed world (after South Korea and Hungary). 10% of Japan’s population lives in Tokyo, where rush hour is so crowded it’s called a “suburban hell” and more than 1,500 earthquakes every year take a toll in both lives and property damage.
It makes sense for Japanese scientists to be at the forefront of understanding how green spaces can alleviate problems of both the brain and the body. Led by Yoshifumi Miyazaki at Chiba University and Qing Li from the Nippon Medical School in Tokyo, field tests, hormone analysis and new brain imaging technologies are revealing how nature works at the molecular level.
So far, they’ve found that walking in the forest, compared with urban walks, results in 12.4% less cortisol (the stress hormone), 7% more sympathetic nerve activity, 1.4% improvements in blood pressure and a 5.8% calmer heart rate. In subjective tests, forest walkers also report better moods and less anxiety.
The science is so compelling that almost 1/4 of the population of Tokyo has participated in a “forest bath” and most have repeated the experience. Miyazaki believes that because humans evolved in nature, that’s where they feel most comfortable, even if they often don’t know it. “Over the course of evolution, we spent 99.9% of our time in natural environments,” he says. “Our psychological functions are adapted to it. In everyday life, we can achieve a feeling of comfort if our rhythms are synchronized with those of the environment.”
We all have a nearby forest, a national park, and a need for relief. If Walden isn’t enough to convince us, here’s the science to finish doing so. Leave the phone behind for a few hours and go out walking in the woods.
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