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The Healing Power of a Walk in the Woods

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“In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.”- John Muir

By Greg Seaman, Eartheasy.com Posted Jul 5, 2011

Walk in the WoodsFor over 20 years, I walked to work each morning along a winding trail through a forest of giant cedar and fir trees, my mind usually preoccupied with the challenges of helping run a small woodworking business. I used to joke to my friends at work that, in the long run, the daily walk through the forest was probably of more lasting benefit to me than the hard earned pay checks.

Now I’m not so sure it was a joke. The money earned is long gone, but the good health I’ve enjoyed through the years is still with me. My medical record so far is pretty thin. I’ve never been to a hospital, touch wood.

Maybe I’ve just been lucky. But living in a beautiful forest since 1980 may have set me up for this luck.

According to a study recently published in the journal Epidemiology, nearly one in five young adults in the U.S. has high blood pressure. Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill also report that, while almost 20 percent of young American adults suffer from “symptomless hypertension”, only about half of those aged 24 to 32 are aware of having the condition, making the silent killer all the more deadly.

It’s not possible to link this epidemic of hypertension conclusively with any particular cause, but it seems logical that time spent in nature will help slow us down to the speed of life which we’ve been biologically programmed to live since the dawn of man.

While we may intuitively appreciate a walk in the woods, the benefits may seem somewhat intangible and undefined. I remember when my children were babies a sure way to quiet them when upset was to carry them outside under the forest canopy. The silence of the still forest had a calming effect, a chirp from a nearby bird could lure the child into quiet fascination, and the air rich with earthy smells had a soporific effect on a cranky child. Were these benefits a gift from the forest, or was my imagination working overtime?

According to Yoshifumi Miyazaki, Japan’s leading scholar on forest medicine, a walk in the forest does indeed calm a stressed baby, and much more. A walk in the woods, or ‘shinrin-yoku’, provides preventive medical effects by relieving stress and recovering the immune system diminished by stress. And for the first time, Japanese scientists have found ways to quantify the impact that forest therapy (shinrin-ryoho), can have on humans.

Miyazaki’s research studies show that ‘forest bathing’ can significantly lower levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, along with blood pressure and heart rate. Walking in the woods can boost the body’s immune system by increasing anti-cancer proteins and enhancing the activity of certain cancer-fighting cells. The research suggests that humans benefit from breathing in ‘phytoncides’, the volatile organic compounds plants emit to protect themselves from bacteria, fungi and insects. In a related study (2), researchers in a Sierra Nevada forest identified 120 airborne volatile chemicals, of which only 70 could be identified.

During 2005-2008, Miyazaki conducted experiments at 38 different forests at widely separated locations throughout Japan, ranging from the large northern island of Hokkaido to Okinawa. Stress hormone (cortisol) levels in saliva, autonomic nerve activity (sympathetic and parasympathetic) monitored by heart-rate fluctuation, blood pressure, and heart rate, were adopted as measured variables. In addition, for the first time, his team developed a method to monitor prefrontal cortex activity of the brain using near-infrared spectroscopy in the field. Measurements were taken of forest phytoncides, urban exhaust fumes, temperature and humidity, light conditions, wind velocity, and negative and positive ions.

As a result of studies involving 288 volunteers at 24 different sites, the group of volunteers looking at natural surroundings while sitting down showed the following endpoint decreases compared to the urban control group: a 13% decrease in cortisol level, an 18% decrease in sympathetic nerve activity, a 2% decrease in blood pressure, and a 6% decrease in heart rate. Parasympathetic nerve activity was enhanced by 56%, indicating a relaxed biological system.

Results compiled from several related studies (3,4,5) show a wide range of positive benefits from a walk in the woods. These benefits include:

  1. decreased blood glucose levels in diabetic patients
  2. decreased stress hormones
  3. decreased heart rate
  4. decreased blood pressure
  5. general relaxation of the human body (increased parasympathetic nervous system activity)
  6. possible boost to the immune system (reduced cortisol is associated with increased immune function)
  7. decreased depression
  8. decreased anger
  9. decreased fatigue and confusion
  10. increased psychological vigor

Protecting natural forests benefits human health

There is a secondary benefit to our recognition of the physical benefits derived from spending time in the forest. As we learn more about the healing power of natural forests, momentum may build to help preserve these healing environments through better forest management practices. In Japan, Miyazaki’s research findings have led to the establishment of more than 40 ‘forest therapy’ sites across Japan. The goal is to set up 100 protected natural forest reserves within the next decade.

In the US today, most people live in urban or suburban environments. But for 99.9 percent of our evolutionary history we have lived in nature, and our physiological development is still adapted to nature. Today, our fast-paced lifestyles place us in an overstimulated state which creates stress, and living in artificial environments denies us the exposure to the healing properties of nature. Getting back to nature is actually like a physiological homecoming.

Bringing ourselves and our children into nature offers significant benefits for our personal well-being, as well as needed perspective to help support and guide future forest management practices.

References:

  1. 1. Science of Natural Therapy, by Yoshifumi Miyazaki , Center for Environment, Health and Field Sciences. Chiba University
  2. 2. Science of The Total Environment Volume 112, Issues 2-3, March 1992, Pages 233-250
  3. 3. International Journal of Biometeorology, 1998;41:125 – 7
  4. 4. Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine, 2010: Volume 15, Number 1, 18 – 26
  5. 5. Biology of the Neonate, 2000;78(1):70-2

 

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  • diana

    Excellent read. I wish someone would do an in depth study of the effects of noise on the human body. I know that when I made the transition to the city, it was noise that was the most difficult adjustment. Aside from that, I do believe the fragrance of the forest is the best aroma therapy ever.

    • Greg Seaman

      Thanks, good comment. Our visitors from town often comment on the stress of noise levels where they live. They don't realize the pervasiveness of the noise until they are away from it.

  • read2learn

    I wish I had woods in my backyard. I live in Los Angeles! There is nothing but loud cars and smog everywhere. I think its time to make a move to a more GREEN location

    • cole

      You can have some plants or herbs grown in the backyard.. Los Angles has a great weather all year long for vegetation.. Trust me it would be fun :)

  • Asad

    Thank you for such a nice post. I really enjoyed reading this.

  • suznrob

    I take a route through the park to walk home from work, it's usually the best part of my day!

  • parma49

    great article…
    your post gives me inspiration..
    thanks a lot Mr. Greg Seaman

  • lorene

    Charming post. I find such comfort in nature, even in my small garden which is my oasis. Thank you.

    • Greg Seaman

      Thanks Lorene. The Japanese researchers also found that any contact with nature has measurable benefits, even a poster of a forest on a wall has therapeutic value. Your small garden most likely offers more benefits than one may realize.

  • http://affiliateblog.ascentive.com/ greg ascentive

    The concept of "forest bathing" is so cool and Japanese. I love that phrase, "forest bathing"!

    I have recently been visiting with my parents out in the country a lot, and they live right next to a large wooded area — tall tress everywhere, wooded paths for walking along, etc. When you look up, all you see are treetops and when you look into the distance, I often spot large groups of deer. I've seen foxes, groundhogs, chipmunks, and all sorts of small woodland creatures.

    This regular activity of taking long walks through the woods has had a noticeable effect on my mood. Getting away from the city and experiencing the calm of nature has been great for me.

    Now if I could just put down the smartphone while I'm visiting with nature…..

    Greg

    • Greg Seaman

      Great comment Greg.
      I also think the term 'forest bathing' is cool. These days it seems more important than ever that we find ways to slow down and take comfort in nature.

  • jazzygal

    A most refreshing article. I will appreciate my next forest walk even more!

  • Christina

    A walk in the woods can sure be calming and relaxing…as long as there aren't mosquitoes trying to bite me. Then it only raises my stress level ;)

  • Ron

    It is really refreshing to walk in the woods and I love nature. I hope that people will appreciate nature's beauty and what are the benefits that we get from nature.

  • HealthNut

    I have always thought that just spending some time in nature/woods on a regular basis will have major benefits for our health. The things I have noticed is that I feel so much calmer afterwards and I also feel more energetic. It’s a great feeling.

  • http://www.higherawareness.com/blog/beware-of-spiritual-materialism/ Spiritual Growth

    This was an interesting read. I've had a few walks myself and indeed there is nothing better than the feeling of being with nature. Good job!

  • Mw3Vid

    Charming post. I find such comfort in nature, even in my small garden which is my oasis. Thank you.

  • http://www.melhorsuplemento.com Melhor Suplemento

    Very good article!
    The only benefit i knew is "decreased blood glucose levels in diabetic patients".
    I didn't know about the other ones.
    Thank you for sharing this!

  • edward

    Thanks Greg  for the info on the positive benefits of  walking in the WOODS!!  I have been a woods person since I was young. Living in the city of Boston for 12 years has made me a WOODS addict!!  It’s the most beautiful, relaxing, peaceful thing in my life!!! 

  • http://www.backyardsimple.com/8-fun-outdoor-party-games-game-on/ Mitch

    I know a walk in the woods does wonders for my attitude – its my decompression time. I see a difference in my kids and the conversations we have at the dinner table when that table is out on the deck surrounded by trees rather than in the dining room surrounded by walls.

  • http://www.physicaltherapyassistant.info/ Physical Therapy Assistant

    I recently had a chance to walk through the woods and I’ve got to agree with the post here. It’s unfortunate that some of us can’t do this regularly :(

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