By now, you may have heard of forest bathing. Though it has a dreamy Western name, it’s really just the act of mindfully walking among trees. Researchers started investigating its health benefits in 2004. Dr. Qing Li, a professor and immunologist at Nippon Medical School and vice president of the International Society of Nature and Forest Medicine, along with Yoshifumi Miyazaki, a researcher at Chiba University, were the first to scientifically explore this phenomenon. Until that time, the country’s forestry department had started the program as a healthy lifestyle choice. Now, thanks to their and others’ studies, we’re learning the amazing effects of forest bathing. Here are three biggies.
It creates NK cells
The most impressive effect is how well the human body creates NK cells. NK is a shorthand term for a type of white blood cell that protects us from disease. Dr. Li found that after Tokyo businessmen spent two hours hiking every morning for three days, their NK count shot up by 40 percent. When he investigated further, he discovered that inhaling the trees’ essential oils had boosted the subjects’ immune systems. Conversely, the subjects who walked for the same duration over the same three days in the city did not increase their NK count.
It lowers stress hormones
Professor Miyazaki found that people who walked in the forest for 15 minutes lowered their stress hormone (or cortisol) concentration by 12.7 percent. Also parasympathetic activity (relaxed state) increased by over 100 percent. To him, this makes perfect sense since our bodies evolved in nature over thousands of years and inherently yearn to be at one with it.
It boosts creativity
Have you ever noticed you solve problems after taking a walk? Well, David Strayer from the University of Utah found that creativity shot up 50 percent in subjects who spent three days in nature. The prefontal cortex is less active in nature. That rest allows your brain to wander and make random connections, leading to problem-solving and creativity.
These are the most well known effects of forest bathing but the science continues to grow and support the practice. And just to clarify, this doesn’t mean you have to backpack into the Alaskan wilderness. As Dr. Li says, “This is not exercise, or hiking, or jogging. It is simply being in nature, connecting with it through our senses of sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch.”
I hope you can get into the woods this weekend and immerse yourself in all nature has to offer. It just might improve your mood.
Photo by Daniel Sessler