I've long extolled the benefits of a little greenery to anyone who would listen. Having grown up in rural Somerset (although I wasn't so keen on the place back then), I can talk at length about how the sight of a rolling hill can elevate the spirit, or how carving a path right through the centre of an empty green field can elevate a mood. I've even had to fill my inner London flat with indoor plants and a green sofa to try and replicate the views from my childhood bedroom. Yes, I love the buzz of the city, but when I'm looking to recalibrate, it's always the countryside I come crawling back to.
Seemingly, I'm not alone, as a growing number of city dwellers wholeheartedly embrace the latest wellness trend: forest bathing. Switching stuffy yoga halls and dark meditation studios for The Great Outdoors, this new movement sees us returning to nature for our mindfulness fix. “Spending time in nature is proven to help you relax, and in an age where stress has become an epidemic, this is invaluable," claims Qing Li, forest bathing expert and author of Shinrin-Yoku: The Art and Science of Forest Bathing.
Hailing from Japan, forest bathing, or as it's known there, shinrin-yoku, isn't so much a fad-dy weekend pursuit—it's far more embedded in the lifestyle, and has been for years. Simply speaking, it's about spending more time in nature—namely, forests—to (literally) breathe in the benefits the outside world can have on our health. I see you raising a skeptical brow—yes, it really is just a fancy way of packaging up going for a walk in the countryside, but as soon as you hear the studies and benefits, your reservations might disappear.
I can't promise my motive wasn't to build up more of a convincing case to persuade my friends that a walking holding might actually be fun, but I spoke to Li to find out exactly what benefits forest bathing pose to our physical and mental health, as well as how to take part if your proximity to nature is somewhat limited.
Why do you think forest bathing is so important for our mental health?
"When we're stressed, our flight-or-fight instinct kicks in, causing our blood pressure to rise and our heart rate to increase. This is helpful in occasional moments of crisis, but if we're constantly feeling on high alert, the long-term impact on our body is devastating. We've seen that spending time in the forest causes heart and blood pressure rates to drop. The vital importance of sleep to our well-being has been much discussed in recent years, and a further benefit of shinrin-yoku is that it improves sleep length and quality. One study proved that after forest bathing, participants slept almost an hour longer on average. Shinrin-yoku also improves concentration, and has been shown to be extremely helpful in the treatment of anxiety and depression."
And what about the physical benefits—are there any?
"Trees release natural oils called phytoncides that protect them from insects and fungi, and which are hugely beneficial to the human immune system. Exposure to phytoncides increases your count of natural killer cells, which help to prevent diseases and reduce the production of stress hormones in your body. Soil also contains a microbe called Mycobacterium vaccae, which we inhale when we spend time in the forest. Mycobacterium vaccae works like an antidepressant and can be more effective in lifting mood than some prescription drugs."
And why do you think people are only just starting to clock onto this now?
"Carving out regular time spent in nature is going to be increasingly important for Western society in coming years. It's projected that by 2050, 75% of the world's population will live in cities. It's proven that city dwellers are more likely to suffer from heart attacks, strokes and cancer. They're also associated with higher anxiety and depression rates, the treatment of which currently costs the European Union about 170 billion euros a year. We also spend a staggering amount of time indoors. The average European spends 90% of their time indoors, and almost nine hours a day looking at a screen. That's longer than most of us sleep per night!"
Just how doable do you think this practice is, for someone living in a city?
"You can practise shinrin yoku anywhere that has lots of trees, so city parks are perfect. An experiment with my students, whereby we measured their rates of anxiety before and after walking in Tokyo's city parks, proved that there are many benefits to be reaped from urban trees."
"There are even steps you can take to bring the forest indoors if you really can't get outside. Using essential oils like pine- or hinoki-scented candles can help you sleep and slow down your fight-or-flight response. And there are a whole range of health benefits to having indoor plants in your house. They are natural air purifiers and can soak up the toxic chemicals found in things like paint, cigarettes and cleaning products. They can also restore negative ions (the good ones) to the atmosphere indoors to offset electrical devices, which absorb them."
"Obviously nothing beats getting outside if you can—where you're away from all your devices and distractions—but there are definitely steps you can take to apply the ideas of shinrin yoku to your everyday life, even if you don't live near a forest."
And what if I wanted to go forest bathing elsewhere—where would you recommend?
"The forests of Japan, of course! There are lots of Japanese forests (two thirds of the country is covered in trees), but I do have some favourites: Akasawa with its 300-year-old Kiso cypress trees is one of them; as is Iiyama, where I conducted the first-ever forest bathing study. In Japan, forests have forest bathing centres where you can get your blood pressure checked and do some meditation, so they're the perfect place for some shinrin-yoku."
Ready to peel yourself away from your screen and head into the great outdoors? Below, I've picked out a few items that will help you along the way.
I prefer trainers to hiking boots, but I still need sturdy soles to traverse the rugged terrain. These are up to the task but still feel light.
Aside from the obvious curb appeal, S'well's bottles are lightweight and insulated to keep water colder for longer—a godsend on a long hike.
Dr. Qing Li's says-it-all guide touches on everything there is to know about forest bathing and the benefits of the outdoors, why not spend your lunch break at the park reading it?