With many people across the world experiencing a very different lifestyle currently due to the Coronavirus pandemic, time outdoors and our connection to nature has never been more important. We live in an increasingly urbanised world, however, and it is estimated that 68% of the global population will live in cities by 2050. We also spend less time outdoors, with people in countries such as the UK spending 90% of their time indoors. Increased time indoors has been linked to a host of health problems such as allergies, rickets, and short-sightedness. The combination of increasing urbanisation and our indoor lifestyles has led to a disconnect from nature, which is reflected in how our unsustainable way of living is decimating natural resources.
With enforced isolation due to global lockdowns, spending time outdoors has been a source of respite to many, allowing us to start reconnecting to the natural world. We instinctively appreciate that immersing ourselves in nature is restorative, soothing our senses as we feel sunlight on our face, or listen to lilting birdsong. The benefits of being surrounded by nature are not just related to our mood, however, and there is substantial scientific evidence showing that there are also significant physiological benefits. Spending time in woodland is particularly beneficial to our wellbeing, and evidence demonstrates that practices such as forest bathing can reduce stress levels, lower heart rate, and improve the immune function of participants. This has led to doctors around the world prescribing forest bathing for a range of conditions, as it is the perfect medicine for our hectic modern lives.
In spite of the name, forest bathing does not involve swimming but is spending time mindfully in a forest, slowing down and focusing on the nature surrounding you. It involves immersing your senses in the sights, sounds, scents and feel of woodlands. Many of us enjoy walking through woodlands, but forest bathing involves taking the time to appreciate the mossy twist of a tree trunk, touching the rough bark, breathing in the scent of pine needles or blossom, listening intently to a nuthatch. It sounds a little insubstantial, but there is considerable scientific evidence of our need to connect to nature and of the benefits of forest bathing as a therapeutic practice.
Photo credit: Jason Boldero (https://www.flickr.com)
The birth of forest bathing as a concept was in 1980s Japan, where it is known as ‘Shinrin-yoku’. At that time research began to be published into the beneficial effects of spending time in forests for human health. Since then the research evidence has grown, with the advantages of spending time outdoors for our physical and mental wellbeing being consistently reported. Doctors in Japan have long prescribed forest bathing as a preventative therapy, and there is increasing interest in ‘social prescribing’ from GPs in the UK. An industry has grown up with guided forest bathing tours and retreats, teaching us how to switch off, increase mindfulness, and soothe our stresses away.
Humans historically spent most of their time outdoors, and the shift to living and working indoors is very recent, representing only 0.01% of the human history timeline. It has been recognised for centuries that we are instinctively drawn to nature, and science has formulated several theories to articulate why nature attracts our attention. The biophilia hypothesis was proposed by the biologist Edward O. Wilson in 1984 and describes how human beings have an innate attraction to nature and an urge to seek out connections to living organisms. Although Wilson proposed that there was a genetic component to this attraction, no genetic basis has yet been found. Biophilia is manifested in people risking their lives to rescue animals or filling their homes and gardens with plants. In terms of conservation, this biophilic connection is essential to encouraging humans to preserve ecosystems and the scientific work involved in environmental psychology looks at how we can harness this connection.
Photo credit: Ari Bakker (https://www.flickr.com)
There has been considerable research on how nature improves concentration by absorbing our attention in a gentle way. Attention Restoration Theory explains how restorative natural phenomena such as clouds moving across the sky, or the constant movement of a stream, fascinate us and capture our involuntary attention. This gives us a break from the cognitive demands of direct attention where we focus on a specific task. A sustained period of direct attention can lead to mental fatigue and distraction, but walking through a natural environment, using a virtual reality natural environment, and even viewing pictures of nature can restore our concentration. The effect is so marked that it can help patients to recover more quickly from operations if they can see trees from their hospital window. Some research has even confirmed that we are subconsciously aware of the biodiversity of the habitat around us and that the psychological wellbeing effects from being in nature increase with higher biodiversity.
Photo credit: Jason Boldero (https://www.flickr.com)
There is considerable evidence that forest bathing confers significant physical health benefits, particularly in terms of the cardiovascular system. Forest bathing is consistently shown to decrease heart rate as well as improving integrated measures such as heart rate variability. This then leads to reduced stress and an improvement in the function of the parasympathetic nervous system. The reduction in heart rate and improvement in heart rate variability has been directly linked to the scent of trees (cedar or pine) more specifically, suggesting that there may be sensory mechanisms behind the beneficial effects of forest bathing. In addition, subjects encouraged to handle leaves and tree bark exhibited reduced blood pressure in another study, providing further evidence that sensory interaction with natural materials is important to our physical health.
Forest bathing also has a surprising role to play in improving immune function, as it increases Natural Killer lymphocyte cell activity both during the forest visit and for up to 30 days afterwards. Natural Killer cells kill virally infected cells but are also involved in detecting and controlling the early signs of cancer. This increase in immune system activity is thought to be due to breathing in phytoncides, essential oils from wood, the same compounds that were shown to improve cardiovascular measures. Spending a lot of time outdoors is also known to increase vitamin D levels and further boost immune function.
Forest bathing can help with long term health conditions and has been found to lower blood glucose in type 2 diabetics and reduce pain levels in those suffering from chronic widespread pain. Forest walking has also been found to improve sleep duration and quality in patients with sleep complaints, leading to a decrease in anxiety. There is a need for further longitudinal studies to look at the long term effects of increased exposure to woodland, but the existing research provides a compelling argument for us to spend more time in forests.
Forest bathing is predominantly associated with encouraging relaxation and reducing stress, and there is substantial evidence that it leads to a reduction in stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. This is reflected in studies where patients were asked to assess their own mood following forest bathing and recorded that they felt calmer. Forest bathing can also reduce symptoms of depression and expedite remission from depression, and has been found to be particularly helpful in treating depression in alcoholics and patients recovering from accidents. This is reflected in a recent study based in Leipzig, which found that proximity to street trees was related to lower levels of antidepressant prescriptions, particularly in disadvantaged socio-economic groups.
Participants in forest bathing often report that they feel more relaxed afterwards and indeed time spent in woods can also help with concentration and mental clarity. Forest walks have been shown to improve working memory, and in one study a walk through an arboretum improved the participants memory test performance by 20%. Similarly a walk through woodland can improve your ability to focus and has been shown to help concentration in children with ADHD. With all these considerable physiological and psychological benefits, it is understandable why doctors are prescribing forest bathing as a preventative medicine, and it provides a compelling motivation for all of us to spend more time in woodlands.
Bluebell Woodland – Photo credit: Alison Day (https://www.flickr.com)
Although you can hire a forest bathing guide to help you learn to attune to the woodland around you, it really is as simple as finding a good nearby wood and spending some time there. The Wildlife Trusts, RSPB, Forestry England and the Woodland Trust all have accessible woodland sites across the country and it is worth seeking out some ancient woodland sites for high biodiversity. Once you have found your woodland, head there without any devices, and walk or sit quietly amongst the trees for a couple of hours. Focus on your senses and what you can see, hear, smell, and feel. The woodland birds are just starting to sing as they start marking their territories and spring is the ideal time to get out and fill your senses with the sights and sounds of our beautiful native woodlands. If you need a shot of attention restoration and cannot get out to a wood, then even looking at videos or images of trees and listening to recorded birdsong will have a beneficial effect.
There is widespread acknowledgement of the need to preserve and restore our lost forests for the health of the planet, but evidence shows us that trees are critical to our individual health and wellbeing too. Our mission at Creating Tomorrow's Forests is to recreate and restore woodland habitat in the UK for the benefit of wildlife and people. One of the key advantages of planting in the UK is that our members can visit the woods that they have helped to create and maybe even enjoy some forest bathing.