THE NEW NATURE WALK
JAPANESE RESEARCHERS HAVE FOUND THAT LEAVING THE CIVILIZED WORLD BEHIND FOR A FEW HOURS COULD BE THE HEALTHIEST THING YOU DO ALL DAY! BY NICOLE FREHSE'E
Last July Rebecca Valentine was feeling the way we all have at some point: tired, and a bit panicky. She had just quit her job as a community outreach coordinator to strike out on her own and open a souvenior shop in her hometown of Santa Rosa California. "I knew I'd made the right move, but I was still freaked out about starting my own business," she recalls. So when a friend asked her to join him on a guided three hour walk in a nearby forest, she agreed, thinking she could use the distraction. This wasn't just any hike in the woods, however-Valentine was taking part in a practice called "shinrin-yoku", which translates as "forest bathing", or luxuriating in the woods. "We really focused on what we were seeing, hearing, and smelling," says Valentine,51. "It helped keep my mind off work." Your average walk in the park may help you relax a little, but "shinrin-yoku", developed in Japan in the 1980's, requires participants to deliberately engage with nature using all 5 senses. Portions of the walk are often done in silence, and cell phone use is discouraged. "I encourage walkers to practice deep breathing and to tune in to what sparks their senses, like the texture of birch bark or the scent of wild flowers or pinecones.," says Mark Ellison, who began teaching this practice three years ago at Cabarrus College of Health Sciences in Concord, North Carolina.
By combining mindfullness and spending time in nature-two activities that have restorative properties on their own-shinrin-yoku can yield significant health advantages: A study conducted across 24 forests in Japan found that when people strolled in a wooded area, their levels of the stress hormone cortisol plummetted almost 16 percent more than when they walked in an urban environment. And the effects were quickly apparent: Subject's blood pressure showed improvement after about 15 minutes of the practice. But one of the biggest benefits may come from breathing in chemicals called phytoncides, emitted by plants and trees. Women who logged two to four houses in a forest in two consequective days saw a nearly 40 percent surge in the activity of cancer-fighting white blood cells, according to one study. "Phytoncide" exposure reduces stress hormones, indirectly increasing the immunes system's ability to kill tumor cells, ", says Tokyo-based researcher Qing li, MD, PhD, who has studied shinrin-yoku. Even if you don't live near a forest, studies suggest that just looking at green space-say the trees outside your office window-helps reduce muscle tension and blood pressure. While forest bathing has become a common practice in Japan, it's only just beginning to catch on in the US. Leslie Gernon, 58, who founded a shinrin-yoku group in Raleigh North Carolina, in 2012, admits that some people might consider the walks a sillly New Age trend. I feel like I'm taking care of myself in a way that has a lasting impact.