Medical conditions like chronic stress, fatigue, hypertension, anxiety, depression are common. Yet medications for them are costly, have adverse effects, lower quality of life and lower longevity.
An innovative and smart idea might just be walking in the nearby forest.
Like meditation or yoga, many make fun of forest walking. “Now that’s for hipsters”. “That’s what my grandpa would do”. “There’s a sucker born every minute”. It’s more trendy to sweat in the gym. Or relax by going to the local Starbucks and please yourself with a Venti Pumpkin latte. At least you can put those on Instagram and share how busy and connected you are.
Yet forest walking, also known as forest bathing or shinrin yoku in Japan can be theurapeutic. Findings are preliminary but clear. Walking in the nature quiets our adrenal glands and decreases cortisol or stress hormone. Improvements in immune functioning were observed. None of this was observed with city trips similar in course. Japanese researchers suggest that antimicrobial volatile organic compounds secreted by plants and evergreen trees, known as phytoncide, could be associated with improvements in our immune system, by increasing the number of white cells fighting infected or tumor cells.
Similar studies in Finland and in the United States demonstrate reduction in anxiety, stress with lowered blood pressure and heart rate.
Simply, forest walking makes you healthier and feel more alive. Unlike medication mentioned above, there are no side effects. And it’s free!
I live in a city but feel lucky to have large parks. There’s also a large hill or mountain where you can run or walk for hours. Here’s how I do it:
- I don’t take a cell phone or any other connected object. Cameras also disrupt, so it’s a no. In fact any electronics, iPod or wareable is a no.
- I dress lightly. I sometimes take Vibram Five Fingers shoes as it gives me a “barefoot” and direct experience with nature. This also means no gloves or hat.
- I walk slowly. It might take me up to 2 or 3 hours to cover 1 mile so you do the math.
- I practise mindful walking. There’s no map, and the goal is not to go from point A to point B. I use the five senses : sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch to notice my body and surroundings and bring myself to the present moment. As I walk, I become aware. Every step, I pay attention to each foot as it rises up and steps into the ground. I notice my weight as it raises each foot and how it interacts with the forest ground. I observe nearby nature with openness and curiosity. How are the leaves? What are their colors and shape? How are the trees and plants? How do they grow? Is there nearby water? How is the water moving. I also notice sounds. Can you hear the wind? Can you hear any nearby animals? And once in a while, I pause and close my eyes. Can I smell anything? Let’s take a few deep breaths and notice any smell coming from the forest. What do you taste? Can you taste their air? And often, I will stop walking, reach down and touch leaves, stones and the ground. How is the texture?
- If I find myself distracted, such as a plane on the horizon, I pause and acknowledge the distraction, and bring my awareness back to the forest. I remind myself to use the opportunity to be present, with openness and curiosity.
- Soon, I find my heart rate and blood pressure are lower, I feel more focused and energized. You just feel good!
I also find that trail running beneficial however the bound with nature is less strong. It’s still a nice way to add good cardiovascular exercise in your activities.
So next time you feel stressed, look into walking in the nearby forest!
- Many studies funded by the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries can be consulted here.
- Gregory N. Bratman, Gretchen C. Daily, Benjamin J. Levy, James J. Gross. The benefits of nature experience: Improved affect and cognition. Landscape and Urban Planning Volume 138, June 2015, Pages 41–50
- Liisa Tyrväinen, Ann Ojalaa, Kalevi Korpela, Ti mo Lankic, Yuko Tsunetsugu, Takahide Kagawa The influence of urban green environments on stress relief measures: A field experiment.Journal of Environmental Psychology Volume 38, June 2014, Pages 1–9