Soaking in the forest

Try forest bathing, even in the winter, to improve your health.

People walking through forest.
Take some time to use all five of your senses when out in the woods. | Photo by Georgia Peterson, Michigan State University Extension

In our society, we generally accept that trees and forests offer many benefits, whether they’re in rural, suburban or urban areas. Environmentally, forest cover offers a suite of benefits. According to a SUNY study of megacities this year, one square kilometer (247 acres) of tree cover is estimated to save about $83 per resident in air pollution reduction, water conservation, carbon dioxide sequestering and energy savings.

There are personal physiological benefits to these forest resources as well. For example, research suggests that hospital patients recover faster from surgery when offered a view of natural green spaces, versus built or developed areas. Other studies have examined urban forests’ effect on residential health. The researchers found that forest canopy does correlate with better overall personal health and higher neighborhood social cohesion.

Although we may think of these observations as pretty accurate, in general we don’t spend much time outdoors on an everyday basis. A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency study recently found that, on average, Americans spend 93 percent of their time indoors, either in enclosed buildings or vehicles. 

There are strategies that are designed to try and better balance our indoor-outdoor lives. For example, the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, is a concept that is catching on here on the other side of the Pacific. The idea isn’t to actually get wet, or do any sort of actual heavy physical exercise, it’s about just being present in a forested area, using our senses of sight, smell, touch, hearing and even taste. The theory is that these experiences restore our energy and mood while reducing our burdens of stress and everyday worries. Public health studies suggest that the body does have reduced cortisol levels, a hormone related to stress, and increased mood states after spending even short periods of time in forested settings.

The topics of forest bathing on human health, as well as how to keep our own forests healthy through responsible forest management, will be discussed during a Women Owning Woodlands woods walk on Thursday, Dec. 13 from 2-4 p.m. in Interlochen, Mich. This family-friendly event is being jointly hosted by Michigan State University Extension and the Grand Traverse Conservation District’s Forestry Assistance Program. It will give participants a chance to walk through a private, woman-owned forest. Although there is no cost to attend, registration is required by filling out the short form online, or by contacting Julie Crick, MSU Extension Forestry Educator, at 989-275-7179. Specific directions to the property will be shard upon registration.

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