There is mounting evidence of the numerous benefits to humans of spending time in nature. This is something most of us intuitively know. Fresh air and natural surroundings seem to have calming and rejuvenating effects, and scientists have been studying the connection between nature and our physical and mental well-being. Spending time in nature to gain health benefits is an idea that the Japanese have promoted for ages. In fact, they have a name for it. They call it “forest bathing” which is translated from the Japanese shinrin-yoku. Japan today has more than 60 government-certified forest bathing sites. There are numerous books on the topic that aim to teach readers how to tap into the healing power of trees by spending mindful, intentional time outdoors.
Dr. Qing Li is a medical doctor and chairman of the Japanese Society for Forest Medicine. He authored a book on forest bathing in which he shares scientific evidence that the practice can lower blood pressure and stress, improve concentration and memory, lift depression, and boost the immune system. Li has been studying the effects of the environment on our health and immune function for thirty years. His research shows that when people walk through a forest, they inhale phytoncides that increase their number of natural killer (NK) cells, a type of white blood cell that supports the immune system and is associated with a lower risk of cancer. NK cells are also thought to have a role in combating infections and autoimmune disorders and reducing inflammation, which contributes to a range of ailments, including heart disease and diabetes. Li provides advice for how to practice forest bathing by using all five senses — sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste — and immersing oneself in the natural world.
Mounting research supports Li’s claims. A study published in 2019
found that 20,000 participants were significantly more likely to report good health and well-being when they spent 120 minutes or more in nature a week. A 2018 study in The Journal of Pediatrics showed that “increased exposure to residential greenspace” led to reduced anxiety, depression, and “problematic internal and external behaviors” among hundreds of children in Ohio. In a 2009 study in the Journal of Attention Disorders
, researchers at the University of Illinois reported that 20 minutes spent walking in a park “substantially” increased the ability of children with attention deficits to concentrate.
Author Richard Louv coined the term “Nature-deficit disorder” to help identify problems associated with spending little or no time in nature. He makes a strong case for people, and particularly children, to get outside and experience nature. Louv argued that obesity, Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), and depression are headed off or mitigated when children are exposed to nature in consistent doses. Medical providers are taking nature therapy seriously for both children and adults. Sometimes referred to as ecotherapy or tree therapy, primary care physicians, nurse practitioners, and pediatricians are writing prescriptions for their patients to spend time outdoors. With people becoming more homebound due to COVID, the importance of getting to greener pastures has become amplified.
A cardiologist in Ohio started meeting his patients for a walk in a park to help get them moving and reap the health and wellness benefits of being outside. There are now more than 500 “Walk with a Doc” chapters in 25 countries. A pediatrician in Washington, D.C. created Park Rx America, which helps doctors prescribe parks and outdoor activities to both pediatric and adult patients. The stated mission of Park Rx America is to “decrease the burden of chronic disease, increase health and happiness, and foster environmental stewardship, by virtue of prescribing Nature during the routine delivery of healthcare.” A Parks Rx America application allows doctors to connect a patient’s electronic health record with parks near their home and prescribe activities. There are numerous other provider-based, nature-prescription programs that use digital tools to help patients find nature and remind them to go out in it.
Those seeking this ecotherapy can find certified forest therapy guides in parks across the country. There are programs around the world for those wishing to become a certified guide. Mother Nature can have a positive impact on our health, and we hope you have an opportunity to get outside.