Focus on the Forest for the Holidays: Forest bathing
Stroll in a green space to reduce holiday stress.
Holiday time can be a busy time for many, but taking a break and walking through a forest can do more for your health than you realize. Our ancient ancestors spent much more time outdoors than we do, perhaps benefitting from those experiences. And Michigan residents are blessed with an abundance of forests and evergreen trees, which can be helpful places to be during the holiday season. Pine scents and forest atmospheres not only remind us of the holidays, but they benefit our health – physically, mentally and physiologically.
In the late 1980s, the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries developed the term "shrinrin-yoku" which translates to “forest bathing”. Forest bathing refers to a practice in which individuals stroll through a forest and immerse all their senses (vision, hearing and smell) into the experience. In the US, the Forest Service is beginning to promote those benefits; and The Association of Nature and Forest Therapy trains and certifies forest bathing guides each year. Not only does the experience sound nostalgic during the holiday season, but it also does many things that are beneficial to health:
- Physical exercise – Walks in green spaces, like forests, make exercising easy because the scenery is pleasant and we forget the work involved with the exercise. Participants can alter their speed, walk on inclines, climb trees, and maneuver through small areas to increase both cardiovascular and muscular benefits.
- Mental relaxation – Walks in green spaces tend to relax our brains and reduce stress better than walks in urban areas, most likely due to our reactions to those views. A study published in Science in 1984 revealed patients with views of natural settings had shorter postoperative hospital stays, fewer negative comments from nurses, and took less pain medication than those with windows facing a wall.
- Physiological benefits – Several studies are now linking time in forests to many internal health benefits. Forest bathing can promote relaxation, causing the parasympathetic nervous system to decrease blood pressure. It can elevate mood, decreasing stress hormones (e.g. cortisol) and increasing positive mood hormones (e.g., serotonin). A 2011 study found that forest walkers could lower their stress hormones and blood pressure more than city walkers.
- The “smile effect” – Forests, and the moods they put us in, can make us smile more. And smiling is good for you.
Our olfactory senses may be one of the most significant senses that reacts when walking in forests, especially when those forests are evergreen (e.g., balsam fir, pine, hemlock spruce and cedar). Many trees emit airborne plant chemicals called phytoncides, which enter our noses and bodies. Phytoncides are antimicrobial volatile compounds produced by plants for their own defenses. It is not entirely clear how those scents affect human brains and bodies, but early research suggests they reduce stress hormones and enhance white-blood activity that boosts immunity and make us less susceptible to disease!
Plants, in general, offer many health benefits, some of which are known (i.e., vegetables are full of vitamins), and others that are just beginning to emerge. During the holidays, make some time to stroll in a forest, consider some holiday meals with forest themes; and try fresh greens over artificial. Your mental and physical self will thank you!
For more information on Michigan forests, visit:
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