A Spring Walk in the Woods

Forest Sunrise ©Ben Sinclair 2012
I've been looking into the Japanese practise of Forest Bathing which is a fascinating therapeutic activity. This is when individuals spend deliberate mindful time in the forest while allowing the environment to have effects on the body and senses. 

A session of forest bathing may be made up of: 

- seeing green trees and plants, taking time to note natural activity around you
- touching the plants and trees, connecting to the ground
- hearing wildlife and listening to sounds of the environment
- breathing the air and noting the aromas given off by the trees and plants.

My personal journey into integrated well-being began with a stress related illness (shingles and post-viral fatigue) during my A-levels. Ever since then I have been aware of the need to build activities into my life to improve well-being and combat the negative effects of stress. See my theory of integrated health here.

View of the Solway ©Ben Sinclair 2012
Fortunately I grew up in the countryside having contact with animals, and my mother was a wonder organic veg grower before the word organic was common parlance. I was lucky enough to take holidays by the sea next to a big forest in Scotland. When looking back, I identify those holiday times as restorative, my cares would slip away as we rounded the corner and I saw the bay. I felt calm and slept well to the sound of waves and the wind in trees. I was energised and rejuvenated by sunsets, cycling, walking, running in the forest and swimming in the sea.

Emerging evidence shows an important part of health balance is maintained in our connection with the natural world. For example stroking a cat has proven benefits on well-being alongside blood pressure reduction, while children who grow up with a pet are more likely to develop appropriate emotional regulation. Viewing green forests releases calming hormones; cold water swimming improves mood and reduces anxiety and depression...the list goes on.

The art of forest bathing has developed to include guided group activities such as mindful breathing exercises like Tai Chi, contemplation, rest and relaxation. A slow 5km walk over 4 hours in dense forest appears to produce the most benefit.

The olfactory (smell) part of the experience appears to play a large part in stimulating positive response in the human body.

As further research suggests, the inhalation of essential tree oils such as limonene causes a stimulation of the immune system and natural anti-cancer systems by increasing numbers of natural killer cells, an effect which is most potent for 7 days after exposure but lasts up to 30 days.  This intake of natural chemicals released by particular tree species might explain the potentiating effect of certain trees found in ancient forest and the increased benefit of visiting larger,  high density forests.

Lickey Hills ©Ben Sinclair 2018
When these tree oils are extracted, vapourised and inhaled in other environments they only have 50% of the positive effect measured in the forest itself. 

Time spent in urban parks with trees can have similar short lived benefits  for up to 24 hours, so it seems the dense forest environment potentiates the full long lasting benefits of forest bathing when combined with specific mindful activity.

Stress hormone levels are reduced by forest bathing along with a reduction in measures of blood pressure, aggression, anxiety, depression and mental confusion.
Increases in fat busting hormones which appear to spike when forest bathing have recently been discovered which may reduce risks of obesity and heart disease.

If you were told about a freely available treatment with all these benefits and as few side effects would you take it?

Gut instinct backed up by the research shows there are significant health benefits in taking a walk in the woods at least monthly. Combined with relaxation and mindfulness, this activity produces long lasting impact in multiple areas of human health.

Don't forget the other physical benefits of activity: social interaction, improved bone density, muscle strengthening and vitamin D synthesis in sunshine to name a few.

To find your nearest forest check out National Trust Forest Bathing Sites or if you are in Birmingham area you might head to my local Forest at The Lickey Hills Country Park.

So make a plan to get out there and find your roots, breathe in the air, slow down and savour the wildlife, say a prayer and contemplate the natural order - it will do you the world of good.

If you would like to contact Dr Ben Sinclair for professional work life balance consultancy or private health services please use the links below:

Optimise Health Clinic

Dr Ben Sinclair Linked In Profile

Twitter: Follow @menshealthtips 


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