The power of forest bathing

The decades-old Japanese practice of Shinrin-yoku is becoming increasingly popular in the western world for good reason. Spending more times in nature – especially among trees – can work wonders on our physical and mental health.

A young woman relaxing on the grass, hands behind her head

Woodlands and forests are important for health. They remove air pollutants and supply us with medicines such as aspirin, quinine and paclitaxel. Also, we all have a biological need to connect with nature, but many of us no longer spend enough time outdoors with negative effects on our wellbeing.

Studies charting the impacts of deforestation on human health have discovered that when woodlands disappear more people die. Across the USA tree loss due to the spread of the emerald ash borer (a small green parasitic beetle) was associated with increased deaths from heart and lung diseases in the affected areas.

Woodland walk sections

A path running through a snowdrop filled landscape

On any ramble I always aim to include some woodland walking to lift my spirits and make me feel better. Wandering amongst trees is enjoyable at any time of the year with the sights, sounds, and smells constantly changing. A personal favourite starts from Kirkbymoorside passing into Manor Vale, with its ancient ash and veteran oaks. The route then takes me through Robin Hoods Howl which, in May, boasts a luxurious carpet of bluebells and ransoms.

Our ancestors were well aware of the importance of contact with the natural world. The Japanese use the term Shinrin-yoku to highlight the advantages we gain by being immersed in a forest. Shinrin in Japanese means `forest` and yoku means `bath`; in other words, `bathing in the forest atmosphere`.

Immunity boosting

Recent research has demonstrated numerous health benefits derived from spending time amongst trees: for example, reducing blood pressure, lowering stress, improving sleep, combating depression, bolstering immunity and helping to keep blood sugar levels in check. Moreover, it is suggested that the effects on our immune systems are due to chemicals – phytoncides – released by trees. These natural oils are part of a tree`s defence system against bacteria, fungi and insects but they also seem to serve a variety of other purposes. Pine trees, cedars, spruces and conifers are the largest producers of phytoncides, and the levels increase as the air gets warmer.

Across the country it is easy to find paths diving into woods or forests; so always try to include one in your walks for 2021. Slow your pace as you pass through, perhaps even using it as an opportunity for a refreshment stop or a bite of lunch. Focus on the natural patterns of trees – the bark, the leaves and the branching of the boughs. Breathe in the scents from the vegetation and the earth in addition to listening to the sounds of wind, water and wildlife.

All this should give you a good dose of Shinrin-yoku, further magnifying the well-recognised benefits of a good walk outdoors.

Dr Nick Summerton is a GP and Ramblers member who sits on Walk magazine’s Ask the Expert panel. 

Magazine of the Ramblers