Ahhhh. Spring and summertime in Michigan. A time to lace up your hiking boots, find the nearest nature trail, and—if you’re looking for a way to boost your mental and physical wellbeing — go forest bathing.
Since the 1980s, the Japanese government has touted the practice of forest bathing or “shinrin-yoku,” to improve and maintain overall health. (In Japanese, “shinrin” means forest and you means “bath”).
The practice involves taking a leisurely stroll in the woods and connecting with the nature through the five senses (think: stopping to smell the trees, feeling the texture of the leaves, listening to the melody of a bird call, and, quite simply, “bathing” yourself in the forest atmosphere).
Over the past few years, forest bathing has caught on in the U.S. as a wellness trend, especially as recent medical studies have demonstrated several direct links between spending time in nature and a variety of physiological benefits.
“Truly immersing yourself in almost any natural environment has been shown to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression symptoms,” says Mira Otto, M.D., an internist with Henry Ford Health system. “Things like forest bathing offer us some much needed time for us to be mindful of ourselves and our surroundings.”
Here are five ways forest bathing can impact your health:
- Improved sleep. As part of a series of studies conducted between 2004 to 2012, Dr. Qing Li, a leading researcher in the subject of “forest medicine,” found that forest bathers who took two walks a day (around one and a half miles each over a period of two hours) slept longer and more soundly. Overall, the average sleep time of participants increased by about 54 minutes.
- Stronger immune system. In 2009, one of Dr. Li’s studies also found that participants who spent time outdoors demonstrated an increase in Natural Killer (NK) cells, which kill virally infected cells and detect and control early signs of cancer. The increase, Li’s study found, was due to the exposure of essential oils emitted from trees.
- Reduced blood pressure. Most of us feel calm while walking through green spaces, but according to several medical studies, walking in, sitting in, or simply viewing a forest environment can help reduce blood pressure, thereby reducing the strain on your heart and blood vessels and reducing your risk for heart attack or stroke. In fact, studies have shown that forest environments have a greater effect on lowering blood pressure in middle-aged or older people compared with non-forest environments.
- Reduced stress and anxiety. It’s no secret that a high-paced city environment can stress us out, but spending time in nature can actually lead to lower levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. Of course, getting away from other stressors in your life—if only for a few minutes—can help too. “Getting outdoors provides an excuse to unplug and not be on your phone,” Dr. Otto says. “That can give you an opportunity to slow down and relax.”
- Boosted creativity. Artists, writers, poets, and musicians have long touted nature as a source of inspiration—and science backs them up. In 2010, psychologists at the University of Utah and the University of Kansas discovered that backpackers scored 50 percent better on a creativity test after spending four days in nature.
No matter what draws you to forest bathing, however, Dr. Otto suggests that the key to getting the most out from your experience is simply to be present—and of, course, to get out there in the first place.
“It’s something you can do easily,” Dr. Otto says. “You can do it anytime and fit it into your schedule… and the best part is: it’s free.”
To find a Henry Ford doctor or schedule an appointment, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936).
Dr. Mira Otto is an internist, seeing patients at Henry Ford Medical Center –Ford Road in Dearborn.