Mankind did not begin indoors. As a species, we have successfully become indoor dwelling. Particularly those of us that live the office life, the only times those may step foot outside is to run errands or to walk to their car. A survey was conducted in 2001, sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, that found that, on average, Americans spend 87 percent of their time indoors and 6 percent in a vehicle.
On that note, there have been scientific studies that have proven that spending time mindfully enjoying nature actually improves human health. Taking time out of your day to intentionally take in a natural environment has been linked to lower stress levels, improved working memory and feeling more alive, including other positive attributes.
In an effort to fight the indoor door epidemic that every human faces, individuals have turned to reaping the health benefits of a Japanese practice called Shinrin-yoku. Thought up by the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries in 1982, the word literally translates to “taking in the forest atmosphere” or “forest bathing”. It refers to the process of intentionally taking in the sights, smells, and sounds of a natural setting to promote physiological and psychological health. Oh yeah, this is legit and, we think, really awesome.
This trend has particularly taken in California. It echoes the teachings of yoga and meditation that have spread east to west. It has even gone as far as mimicking these activities in the sense that it can be a paid-for experience or freely performed solo.
Those that practice Shinrin-yoku explain that it differs from hiking or informative nature excursions because it centers on the therapeutic aspects of forest bathing.
So, in comparison, a nature walk objective is to provide informational content about the environment you are walking in. A hike’s objective is to reach a destination. Whereas, a Shinrin-yoku walk’s objective is to give participants an opportunity to slow down, appreciate things that can only be seen or heard when one is moving slowly, and take a break from the stress of their daily lives.
For example, a 2010 study was held in 24 forests across Japan found that subjects who participated in forest bathing had lower blood pressure, heart rate, and concentrations of salivary cortisol, a stress hormone. These subjects were compared with those who walked through a city setting. When similar studies were performed in other countries such as Finland and the United States, it showed similar reductions in anxiety.
It has also been shown to reduce depression. People on nature walks also tend to engage in less rumination, or negative self-referential overthinking, which has been correlated with depression. A possible explanation for forest bathing’s soothing effects involves our sense of awe when viewing natural beauty. Some researchers also attribute Shinrin-yoku’s health benefits to substances called phytoncides, which are antimicrobial organic compounds given off by plants. They argue that by breathing in the volatile substances released by the forest, people achieve relaxation. However, these substances come in very small concentrations.
While the exact reasons for the benefits found from Shinrin-yoku remain largely unknown, the practice itself continues to spread. This is perhaps as a backlash against this century’s obsession with indoor-use technology and office culture. Will you try it?