The Surprising Health Benefits of Spending Time in Nature



Chances are you’ve already felt the calming psychological effects of spending time outdoors. The mind-body calming effects of being outside are widely known and have been practiced for centuries in Japan. The Japanese refer to the therapeutic effects of spending time outdoors as Shinrin-yoku. Shinrin-yoku was first coined in 1982 by the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries. It translates to “taking in the forest atmosphere”1. In English, we refer to this practice as “forest-bathing.” In fact, there is a plethora of science that supports the idea that regular time in nature is beneficial for your health. Below I’ll outline some of the literature and provide recommendations for easy ways to begin forest-bathing today, so you too may experience some of these benefits. 


The Accessibility of the Outdoors

But first, I feel it is imperative to address the topic of disparities in racial accessibility in the outdoors. Recently, Ahmaud Arbery was murdered while going for a jog in his neighborhood. Even more recently, Christian Cooper had the police called on him while bird watching in New York City. In the United States, there is no such thing as “outdoors for all,” and there will never be until we dismantle the systems of racism in this country. If you are a person with privilege, I implore you to speak out against racism so that others may experience the healing benefits of the outdoors in the same way you do. 


Additionally, I encourage you to do the following: Educate yourselves about allyship and the history of racism in this country. Unlearn what you were taught. Understand why it’s not enough to simply be “not racist.” Read anti-racism literature. Use your capital to elevate black, indigenous, and persons of color, their businesses, and organizations that advocate for them. Start with Black Lives Matter and Campaign Zero. Use your voice and vote, vote, vote on these issues. Overall, empower yourselves and others to be the change. 


As a white woman, I acknowledge my own privilege and understand that there is no way I can be an expert in race relations. If you would like to read more about accessibility in the outdoors, please follow Melanin Base Camp on Instagram. They have provided a resource for allyship in the outdoors. Thank you for allowing me to use this platform in this way. Sincerely, I hope what you have seen recently inspires the desire for change in you.


Forest-Bathing and the Physiological Effects

A systematic review was conducted in 2017 that explored the relationship between forest-bathing and blood pressure2. The authors analyzed results from 20 studies that evaluated the effects of spending time in forest environments on changes in systolic blood pressure. Overall, systolic blood pressure while in a forest environment was significantly lower than that of a non-forest climate. Additionally, significant reductions in diastolic blood pressure were also found. 


In a series of field experiments published in 20101, 280 subjects were randomly sorted to either take a walk in a city-area or a forest-area. Those who walked in a forest showed reduced cortisol, pulse rate and blood pressure, higher parasympathetic nerve activity, and lower sympathetic nerve activity than those who took city-walks. 


So what are the implications of these findings? 


Cortisol is the body’s primary stress hormone. When you experience stress, the body releases excess cortisol and adrenaline via the sympathetic nervous system3. This action increases heart rate and blood pressure, which in turn increases sugars (glucose) in the bloodstream. The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for the stress recovery process in the body. It reduces cortisol and lowers pulse and blood pressure3. 


In a fight-or-flight situation, cortisol response is useful. Still, long-term activation in response to long-term stress is really harmful to your body’s processes. It actually puts you at an increased risk of many health problems, including anxiety, depression, weight gain, and heart disease4. Current literature in the area of forest-bathing has not only found reductions in the activation of the stress response system in the body but has also seen more efficient mobilization of the stress recovery system in the body. Further research is needed to explore further implications of this. 


Ways to Get Out There

There is no correct way to be in the outdoors, so please take this information with a grain of salt. However, if you are looking for ways to be outside and experience these benefits, here are a few.


  1. Some companies offer forest-bathing tours, given by certified guides. A database where you can find your closest tour is here

  2. If you prefer to go at it yourself, any natural area or park with trees will work. However, “the denser the forest, the greater the benefits”5. You can find local trails/forests/hikes here

  3. Make sure to practice Leave No Trace principles when you’re in the wilderness! (Resource: here)

  4. Leave your phone on silent mode. It’s not always safe to hike alone, so I won’t suggest you leave your phone at home. But while you’re out there, try not to listen to music or engage in other tempting distractions that phones provide (i.e. Instagram or Tik Tok).

  5. Finally, stroll and often stop (leave the running shoes at home!). Take in the scenery. Engage your senses by touching, smelling, seeing, listening. But maybe don’t taste anything.



References:


  1. Park BJ, Tsunetsugu Y, Kasetani T, Miyazaki Y. The Physiological Effects of Shinrin-yoku (Taking in the Forest Atmosphere or Forest Bathing): Evidence from Field Experiments in 24 Forests Across Japan. Environmental Health and Preventative Medicine. 2010;15(1):18‐26. doi:10.1007/s12199-009-0086-9

  2. Ideno Y, Hayashi K, Abe Y, Ueda K, Iso H, Noda M, Lee J, Suzuki S. Blood Pressure-Lowering Effect of Shinrin-yoku (Forest Bathing): A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. BMC Complement Altern Med. 2017;17(1):409. doi:10.1186/s12906-017-1912-z

  3. Stress Effects on the Body. American Psychological Association. Published November 2018. Accessed June 8, 2020. https://www.apa.org/helpcenter/stress/effects-nervous.

  4. Chronic Stress Puts Your Health at Risk. Mayo Clinic. Published March 19, 2019. Accessed June 8, 2020. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress/art-20046037.

  5. Prelle M. Forest Bathing: What It Is and How To Do It. REI Co-op Journal. Published April 19, 2019. Accessed June 8, 2020. https://www.rei.com/blog/hike/theres-no-running-in-forest-bathing. 





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Scarleth Castro,BA Nutritionist, Health & Fitness Educator

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