What we can learn from Japanese Forest Therapy and how the new trend in the U.S. can help you.
If you’ve recently gone camping or taken a hike with your family, you may have noticed how a walk in the woods can make you feel better. As it turns out, spending time in the woods may offer tremendous health benefits. In Japan, about 25 percent of people practice “shinrin-yoku,” or forest bathing.
This Japanese art is based upon the healing power of a walk in the woods. And it’s not just in Japan – some tout it as “the latest fitness trend to hit the U.S.,” and liken it to the popularity of yoga 30 years ago.
A brief history of Japanese forest therapy
In 1982, The Forest Agency of Japan set out to start a new movement to promote healthy living called “the forest bathing trip.” The idea was that during contemplative walks through the woods, individuals could connect with nature and, in turn, decrease stress and improve their mood and immunity.
Today, forest bathing is a nationally recognized and practiced method of stress management and relaxation in Japan and has recently become popular in the U.S. as well.
The benefits of Japanese forest therapy
Studies show that Forest Therapy can increase immunity and lower stress levels.
For the past three decades, The Forest Agency of Japan along with the Nippon Medical School in Tokyo and Japan’s Chiba University have measured Forest Therapy’s effectiveness. They’ve found that Japanese forest therapy:
- Increases the activity of human natural killer (NK) cells. These cells respond quickly to viral-infected cells and tumor formation, and are associated with positive immune system health and cancer prevention.
- Has lasting effects on our immunity and mood up to one month after a weekend in the woods.
- Promotes lower concentrations of stress hormones, lowers blood pressure and lowers nerve activity.
- Reduces hostility and aggression and gives us energy and liveliness.
Essentially, Japanese researchers have found that, compared to spending all of our time in a city, being in nature is a free and tremendously effective way to calm our bodies down.
Why is Japanese forest therapy effective?
It turns out that forest air doesn’t just feel better. It is actually better for us.
Wood, plants and some fruits and vegetables emit essential oils called phytoncide. This protects them from insects and germs. Studies show that phytoncide offers a range of benefits to humans when we are exposed to it, including improved immune function, reduced stress and more.
The phytoncide, combined with the soothing sounds of rustling trees and waterfalls, the pleasing aroma of wood and plants and the lack of technology all seem to work together to promote health and wellness. Some say it is simply the vastness of the great outdoors that contributes to a healthier sense of our overall being. Others say it’s the rest that being outside gives our prefrontal cortex, combined with the full reset it seems to give our nervous system, that makes it so powerful.
The effectiveness of Japanese forest therapy and the benefits we reap from it vary from person to person. But there is one thing researchers seem to know for sure, and it’s that getting some fresh air can do all of us a lot of good.
What happens during a Japanese forest therapy session?
So what does a Japanese forest therapy session entail?
In Japan, forest therapy trips can last up to three days, and typically take place along one of Japan’s 48 official forest therapy trails. The government offers various health programs to trail visitors, including aromatherapy classes, medical checkups and guided walks with forest and medical experts.
In the U.S., most forest therapy walks last approximately three hours. First, guides choose flat, easy trails, and lead participants in a walk focused on mindfulness. Next, they may point out different elements of the walk to participants, asking them to focus on how a rock feels in their hand or how soil feels on their face. Additionally, throughout the walk, they may also present different “invitations,” that help participants focus on the present and connect with nature.
However, for the most part, the walk is a quiet, calm, short (usually .5 to 1 mile) excursion designed to give people a way to connect with nature and with themselves.
How did Japanese forest therapy become popular in the U.S.?
Americans spend 87 percent of our time indoors.
In 2001, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency facilitated a study regarding how long Americans spend indoors. The organization found that Americans spend 87 percent of our time indoors. Additionally, we spend 6 percent of our time in an enclosed vehicle. That means that we are only spending 7 percent of our time outside!
Throughout the past several thousands of years we have evolved from an outdoor society to an indoor one. In an effort to combat a U.S. “indoor epidemic,” many have taken to Japanese forest therapy for relief.
How to practice Japanese forest therapy
Maybe you work in tech on the West coast and are looking for a way to disconnect while connecting with your colleagues. Or perhaps you just need some help making the most of your afternoon walks.
Here are some tips from wilderness and forest therapy pros on how to make the most of your outdoor excursions:
- Try the “Pleasure of Presence” exercise. Touch your finger to your nose, close your eyes and listen to the rustling of leaves.
- Pay attention to textures. Feel the trees, leaves, and sticks.
- Practice meditation. Turn your adventure into a walking meditation. Need help? Use an app that can guide you as you walk.
Your outdoor hydration companion
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Have you tried Japanese Forest Therapy?
Let us know how it went in the comments below!