Nature and Health: Take a Walk in the Forest and Call Me in the Morning

Look deep into nature and then you’ll understand everything better – Albert Einstein

Why do we feel calmer and happier when we are outdoors in nature? One theory suggests that we are intuitively connected to nature since it’s in our DNA.   The indigenous people of our planet believe that humans are but one aspect of nature and therefore not just passive observers of it. Our role is to participate as part of the ecosystem.

There has been a lot of research coming out of Japan regarding the health benefits of walking through nature. In 1982 the Forest Agency of Japan promoted the practice of ‘Shinrin-yoku’ or ‘forest bathing’ to encourage a healthy lifestyle. Since 67% of the land in Japan is covered in forest, the activity became very popular. Perhaps it was the number of people who engaged in this practice which prompted researchers in Japan to examine the impact of forest bathing on one’s physical and mental health.

Dr. Li at Nippon Medical School in Tokyo is studying forest medicine and has conducted a number of studies on how forest bathing affects our well-being. His studies have looked into the effects of forest bathing on moods, stress levels, the immune system and cardiovascular & metabolic parameters.

In one study, subjects were sent on a three-day, two-night trip through three different forests. He found that his test study subjects had enhanced NK activity, number of NK cells and intracellular anti-cancer proteins in lymphocytes. He also noted that the NK activity in these individuals lasted for more than 7 days after the trip. He feels that the phytocides (wood essential oils) in the forest’s atmosphere may also, in part, be responsible for this enhanced NK activity.

Other studies conducted by Dr. Li have demonstrated that walking in forest environments reduced stress hormones, such as adrenaline and noradrenalin, and had a relaxing effect on the study subjects. As well, he found that day trips to forest parks significantly reduced blood pressure.

Other areas of current research are showing the benefits of nature on our mental well-being. Studies have shown that one’s mood improves after spending time outdoors and those that were depressed, stressed or anxious, felt much more calm and balanced afterwards.

The earth has music for those that listen – George Santayana

Andrea Taylor and others have conducted research on children with ADHD and found that their levels of concentration had later increased after walking in nature. It is thought that people inherently find nature interesting and therefore when they’re in a natural environment, they focus on the sights, sounds and scents of it. This activity then results in the calming of an overactive mind.

Researchers have been looking at the connection between health and nature for some time now. In 2001, Howard Frumkin, Professor and Chair of Environmental and Occupational Health at the University of Washington discussed his hypothesis on this topic in the America Journal of Preventive Medicine. He stated:

“Unfortunately, the idea that exposure to nature can be restorative is almost invisible or nonexistent in health care. Our standard clinical paradigm involves medications more than non-medical approaches, treatment more than prevention. But many people are intuitively drawn to this idea. They feel restored and healthier in a beautiful landscape, for example. And on the other side, many environmentalists work to preserve nature for a range of very good environmental reasons, but forget that one of the major benefits may be human health”.

In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks – John Muir