Spending time outside is instinctive and intuitive. After all, we evolved in tandem with the natural world, though most of us—especially Americans—don't spend much time there anymore. But as anyone who heads out for a walk or travels into the countryside for a weekend knows, being outdoors makes us feel good.
In Japan, where the practice of spending time in nature for stress relief and relaxation was first formalized, it is known as forest bathing (shinrin-yoku).
In the early 1980s, Japan’s Forest Agency proposed that forest bathing be recognized as a therapeutic practice. Today, there are over 30 official sites for forest bathing in the nation, places where there is documented evidence of a therapeutic effect from spending time in them.
At one recognized forest-bathing reserve, in Nagano Prefecture (the birthplace of forest bathing), visitors get free medical checkups amidst a cypress forest. At others, various programs are available, such as dietary management, hydrotherapy, and aromatherapy.
Studies indicate the physical therapeutic benefits of forest bathing come from inhaling anti-microbial volatile organic compounds that plants emit. Called phytoncides, exposure to these compounds (by air) boosts our immune system. It's essentially a natural form of aromatherapy.
One study showed that for up to seven days after a trip into the woods, the test subjects’ natural killer cells (a type of white blood cell) were elevated. The increase was attributed to exposure to phytoncides combined with the stress-reduction experienced just by being in the woods. This research backed up similar research done a year earlier.
Another study examined the physiological effects of forest bathing on a broader level, finding that forest environments, “could lower concentrations of cortisol, lower pulse rate, lower blood pressure, increase parasympathetic nerve activity, and lower sympathetic nerve activity, compared with city settings.”
One researcher on forest bathing, Yoshifumi Miyazaki, from Chiba University says, “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 said. “When we are exposed to nature, our bodies go back to how they should be.”
While that may be true, getting people outside can be challenging. Heading up the movement in the United States is pediatrician Robert Zarr, who, in partnership with multiple government agencies—from the National Park Service to the department of Health and Human Services—has started the Park Rx program.
Based in Washington, DC, Zarr works with local parks to certify that they are safe, healthy places to spend time, and then he prescribes time in those parks to his patients. In the first 5 months of the program, he prescribed more than 400 patients time in a park, and he's seeing positive results.
Don't wait until your doctor prescribes it. Head on out into nature and feel the benefits for yourself. Find a state park or national park near you, or use this find a forest locator and head on out for a forest bath.
© 2014 Omega Institute for Holistic Studies