‘Forest bathing.’ It sounds like some questionable alternative therapy concocted by the wellness industry, whose iron-clad cures include sunscreen pills and goat yoga. Who can’t picture cleansing their soul with a bleating barnyard animal on your back? Although forest bathing just means spending time in nature, it’s a powerful, proven antidote for the feelings of isolation many of us are grappling with right now.
The Japanese coined the term forest bathing (‘Shinrin-Yoku’), which became popular in the 1980s in the country as a sort of therapy-on-the-go. Also known as Nature Therapy or Eco-Therapy, the activity spread across Asia, and eventually to North America by the 2010s, with the Washington Post dubbing it ‘the new yoga.’
A study from Stanford University reveals that walking in a city park for 50 minutes, boosts your mood, working memory and attention span. A 90-minute stroll in the woods can even rewire your brain to deal with feelings of depression by decreasing blood flow to the parts of our brains associated with negative thinking.
Yet, hard evidence suggests that Canadians and Americans like the idea of spending time in nature more than the actual doing of it. A 2018 Ipsos poll of 2,000 Canadians revealed that, although over 90 percent of respondents said they felt happier when surrounded by nature, 75 percent admitted that staying inside was ‘easier.’ Indeed, 9 out of 10 North Americans spend the vast majority of their time indoors in sedentary states at home and work. To a degree, staying put inside is healthy behaviour during a global pandemic. Yet, we’d be wise to consider our physical and mental well being by choosing to spend more time on the other side of our front doors on a walk in the woods (while adhering to social-distancing protocols).
After All, It’s Where We Came From.
It took about 6-7 million years for us to evolve into the humans we are today. However, we’ve spent 99.9% of that time living in forests up until the industrial revolution, ending less than 200 years ago when we began gathering in cities in far higher numbers. As a result, many studies show that those of us who live in urban settings with few natural environmental features – especially poorer neighbourhoods, dense with high-rise apartment complexes and little foliage – exist in a ‘stress state,’ leading to higher rates of crime and mental illness. We’re seeing this play out right now as a backdrop to the fiery racial strife in cities across the United States (and, to a degree, in Canada), with emotions further fanned by the isolating effects of otherwise sound social-distancing policies during the coronavirus pandemic.
However, when you take humans out of the city and into the woods, something changes. We feel calmer, happier and more clear-headed. A notion sometimes referred to as Biophilia: our innate connection to nature. Hard scientific research seems to back this up. Moderate exercise outdoors in natural surroundings boosts your body’s immune system and reduces your chances of contracting respiratory tract infections, including Covid-19.
A study from Stanford University reveals that walking in a city park for 50 minutes, boosts your mood, working memory and attention span. A 90-minute stroll in the woods can even rewire your brain to deal with feelings of depression by decreasing blood flow to the parts of our brains associated with negative thinking. Researchers at the University of Chiba in Japan found our bodies release significantly lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol when we are active in natural environments. Conversely, the release of high levels of cortisol over long, sustained periods can seriously affect our mental and physical well-being, including high blood pressure, difficulty sleeping, elevated blood sugar levels. Even staring at a picture of a forest can lift your mood, according to a study by researchers at Vrije University Medical Centre in the Netherlands.
As a runner, I feel lucky to live in Toronto (not so much from January-March), a city with one of the largest urban ravine systems in the world and endless trails to get lost in and forget about a world that we can’t control. What we can try to do is take control of ourselves: our minds, our bodies, and our relationships with each other.
A walk in a park is a great place to start.