Want to go forest bathing?” asked a friend during a recent walk filled with the usual chitchat about kids, travel and politics. Since she’s been to an ashram and dabbles in assorted woo-woo experiences (don’t ask about our Akashic Records session), thoughts of taking a bath in the woods au natural while chanting “ohm” went through my mind, and I wanted no part of it.
Sensing my hesitation, she divulged that it has nothing to do with a bar of soap but everything to do with being immersed in nature to soak up the proven health benefits. It isn’t a hike. It isn’t a jog. It’s all about walking slowly, silently, stopping frequently to focus on the sights, smells and sounds of the outdoors sans cellphones or Fitbits.
Since Americans spend 90 percent of their time indoors, pinballing from chore to chore, she had my attention. Could it be that Thoreau was right all along when he wrote about the tonic of the woods?
Despite it being a herculean task for two talkers to shut up, we signed up for a guided forest-bathing walk led by Melanie Choukas-Bradley, an accredited forest-bathing guide, naturalist and author of “The Joy of Forest Bathing.” Before meandering through the woods, we learned that forest bathing — shinrin yoku — literally means taking in the forest atmosphere. It began in Japan in the 1980s as a way to address the problem of overly stressed city dwellers and has become a cornerstone of preventative health and healing in Japanese medicine. It’s no secret that spending time in nature is good for you, but forest bathing is different; it forces you to use all your senses.
“Any walk in a forest or garden is beneficial to health, but when you grow quiet, slow down and tune in to your surroundings with all your senses, you find an extra sense of nature connection and inner serenity,” Choukas-Bradley says.
So, we walked. We touched. We sniffed. We listened. We planted ourselves under a tree, dug our toes into the earth and sucked in our breath so the sound of breathing didn’t disturb the quiet. (Full disclosure: Shushing up was a challenge. With giddy defiance, we snuck in the occasional giggle.) Afterward, we sipped tea and shared what we’ve experienced with 20 other fellow forest bathers, each of us seduced by Mother Nature.
Hold the pills and go outside? Even the medical profession is taking note
of the health benefits. According to an Environmental Research Study published by Elsevier, people who spend more time in green spaces have significantly reduced risks for a number of chronic illnesses. It has something to do with phytochemicals that trees emit and humans breathe in. Researchers looked at data from 100-plus studies that included 250 million people from 20 countries. They compared the amount of time people spent in green spaces with 100 health outcomes. Some studies looked at post-operative recovery time of people who saw greenery out their hospital window compared with people who only saw a wall. The people who saw greenery got better faster.
Urban dwellers, listen up: Vacant lot greening in Philadelphia and the mental health of city residents were linked together according to a paper published in JAMA Network Open. After “cleaning and greening,” residents reported experiencing fewer feelings of depression or worthlessness and a “slight uptick in overall mental health”, according to the study.
Researchers randomly selected vacant lots for greening intervention, removing trash and debris and planting grass and trees, and compared people who live near those greening spaces with people who lived near lots with no improvements. The people living near the green spaces experienced a 41 percent drop in depressive feelings and almost a 54 percent drop in feelings of worthlessness. The study’s co-author, Eugenia South, an assistant professor of emergency medicine at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perlman School of Medicine, says, “Vacant lot greening is a very simple structural intervention that’s relatively low cost and can have a potentially wide impact.”
When architects were designing the new hospital at Mercy Medical Center, they realized the importance of bringing the outdoors into a city building and created two garden levels with trees and water features. “A lot of research is going on about people with delirium and confusion in intensive-care areas,” says Dr. Joseph Costa, medical director of Mercy’s Intensive Care Unit. “All the medical data suggests pharmaceutical is the worst way to treat it.”
Costa recommends spending time outdoors to patients whenever possible. “We definitely see a difference in patients who spend as little as 40 minutes a day in the gardens during recovery,” he says. “Time outside does wonders.”
Maria Mayzel, a certified midwife and women’s health nurse practitioner at the Bay Area Midwifery Center at Anne Arundel Medical Center, often advises women struggling with post-partum depression or anxiety not only to be mindful of nutrition, but also to simply “get out.”
“The rise in social media contributes to depression, isolation and anxiety,” she says. “The stress hormone cortisol associated with being outdoors not only decreases depression and anxiety, it helps people sleep better. Nature is free.”
“Spending time in green spaces is linked to lower heart rate and reduced risk of coronary disease and type 2 diabetes,” Choukas-Bradley says. “It lowers blood pressure and cholesterol and improves mood.” That forest air doesn’t just feel better, she adds, but inhaling the active substances emitted by the trees improves immune system function.
Since my first forest-bathing experience, I now regularly take a bath of tranquility solo in my garden, sitting quietly as I breathe nature’s aromatherapy. I’ve put aside my bucket-list neurosis, and my obsession to set some sort of walking record has been put on hold. For now, at least, I’m stopping to smell the roses. John Muir, the naturalist, was right when he said: “Wilderness is a necessity.”
For a list of upcoming forest-bathing walks, visit melaniechoukas-bradley.com.