We are chained to desks, to computer monitors, we do not let go of smartphones, and the stresses of everyday city life sometimes seem insurmountable to us. Human evolution has spanned more than 7 million years, and less than 0,1% of that time has been spent living in cities – so we still have a long way to go to fully adapt to urban conditions. Our bodies are designed to live in nature.
And here our good old friends – trees come to the rescue. Most people feel the calming effect of spending time in the woods or even in a nearby park surrounded by greenery. Research conducted in Japan shows that there is actually a reason for this – spending time in nature actually helps to heal our minds and bodies.
In Japan, the term “shinrin-yoku” has become a catchphrase. Literally translated as “forest bathing”, immersing yourself in nature to improve your well-being – and it has become a national pastime. The term was coined in 1982 by Forestry Minister Tomohide Akiyama, sparking a government campaign to promote Japan’s 25 million hectares of forests, which make up 67% of the country’s land. Today, most travel agencies offer comprehensive shinrin-yoku tours with specialized forest therapy bases throughout Japan. The idea is to turn off your mind, melt into nature and let the healing hands of the forest take care of you.
It may seem obvious that stepping back from your daily routine reduces your stress score, but according to Yoshifumi Miyazaki, a professor at Chiba University and author of a book on shinrin-yoku, forest bathing not only has psychological benefits, but also physiological effects.
“Cortisol levels go up when you’re stressed and go down when you’re relaxed,” says Miyazaki. “We found that when you go for a walk in the woods, cortisol levels drop, which means you’re less stressed.”
These health benefits can last for several days, which means a weekly forest detox can promote long-term wellness.
Miyazaki’s team believes forest bathing can also boost the immune system, making us less susceptible to infections, tumors, and stress. “We are currently studying the effects of shinrin yoku on patients who are on the verge of illness,” says Miyazaki. “It could be some kind of preventive treatment, and we’re gathering data on that right now.”
If you want to practice shinrin yoka, you don’t need any special preparation – just go to the nearest forest. However, Miyazaki warns that it can be very cold in the forests, and the cold eliminates the positive effects of forest bathing – so be sure to dress warmly.
When you get to the forest, don’t forget to turn off your phone and make the most of your five senses – look at the scenery, touch the trees, smell the bark and flowers, listen to the sound of the wind and water, and don’t forget to take some delicious food and tea with you.
If the forest is too far away from you, don’t despair. Miyazaki’s research shows that a similar effect can be achieved by visiting a local park or green space, or even by simply displaying houseplants on your desktop. “The data shows that going to the forest has the strongest effect, but there will be positive physiological effects from visiting a local park or growing indoor flowers and plants, which, of course, is much more convenient.”
If you’re really desperate for the healing energy of the forest but can’t afford to escape the city, Miyazaki’s research shows that simply looking at photographs or videos of natural landscapes also has a positive effect, although not as effective. Try searching for suitable videos on YouTube if you need to take a break and relax.
Humanity has lived for thousands of years in the open, outside the high stone walls. City life has given us all sorts of conveniences and health benefits, but every now and then it’s worth remembering our roots and connecting with nature for a little uplift.