The Washington Post thinks we’ve all turned into Goldilocks: between long working hours and leisure activities on the couch, inside is just right. Outside? It’s too hot or cold. There’s bugs and pollen. Or it’s raining or snowing. But spending so much time inside is bad for our physical, emotional and mental health.
Shinrin-yoku or forest bathing, might help. Developed in the 1980s, it’s a big part of preventative healthcare in Japan. What’s in it for you? Impressive and well studied health benefits, like a reduction in stress, depression, blood pressure and heart rate. Plus big boosts to your immune system, as well as happiness, focus and creativity.
We’re not talking about proving your wilderness skills, a gruelling fitness hike or an informational nature walk. It’s just a walk in the woods, where you absorb and inhale the forest with all five of your senses. Increasingly popular in Korea, Taiwan and Finland, this trend is blooming worldwide for other big reasons: namely reduced healthcare costs, increased eco-tourism and a potential new career option—certified forest therapy guide.
How is a walk in a forest different than in more urban areas? First, the walk needs to be free from distraction by thoughts or phones. Also, many plants and trees naturally release a compound called phytoncides that help them fight off insects and rot. When we’re exposed to phytoncides our cortisol levels drop. Phytoncides help our immune system too, increasing our natural killer immune cells by up to 40%, which lasts several days. A walk in the woods can speed recovery time from illness or surgery and may even be “prescribed” by your doctor in the future.
There’s also a harmless soil microbe floating in the air called Mycobacterium vaccae which may help us feel happier, by producing more mood-enhancing serotonin in our brains. The increase in focus and concentration from a mere 20-minute walk in the woods is so profound that researchers have found it rivals drugs like Ritalin in effectiveness, even for children who suffer from ADHD when they walk in a city park. And a joint study by two American universities found a 50% increase in creativity scores after participants spent multiple days hiking and camping in the woods.
The rapid rise we’re seeing in chronic illnesses may be caused by spending too much time indoors, disconnected from the natural world. Even if we can’t find a forest to walk in, we can make an effort to get outside. From gardening and walking under trees in city parks to choosing more naturalized vacation spots, we can still benefit from the healing powers of natural spaces. Even looking at pictures of forests and trees for as little as 20 minutes can make a difference. We’ve picked some inspirational images for you to gaze at if you can’t get outside right away.