Take a walk on the wild side

For the stressed and the anxious, a spot of ‘forest bathing’ can be enormously beneficial.

Western doctors are coming around to the idea that time spent in nature – and especially ‘shinrin-yoku’ or ‘forest bathing’ is beneficial for both mental and physical health. Since last year, nature prescriptions have been handed out on the NHS in Shetland and even the Duchess of Cambridge commented on the benefits of getting outside at this year’s RHS Chelsea Garden Show where she co-designed a garden inspired by shinrin-yoku

Stuart Dainton, head of innovation at Woodland Trust, the UK’s largest woodland conservation charity, understands why.

What is shinrin-yoku or forest bathing?  

‘Shinrin’ in Japanese means ‘forest’ and ‘yoku’ means ‘bath.’ Shinrin-yoku or forest bathing is simply the practice of being in nature and connecting with it by using our senses; sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch. It is about taking some time out to walk in a forest, being mindful of our senses and experiencing nature. Getting outside and walking in woodland has certainly helped me on my own health journey and I would certainly recommend it. Even simple things like kicking off your shoes and taking a walk barefoot in the grass can be fun.

grass barefoot

Forest bathing has been recommended as a type of non-medical therapy. What are the benefits? 

A couple of hours in nature practising shinrin-yoku can help you to relax and de-stress. I remember a comment made by Dr. Qing Li, who has studied the benefits of shinrin-yoku. He said, “ there is no medicine you can take that has such a direct influence on your health as a walk in a beautiful forest.” One study in Britain showed that people can spend an average of eight hours and forty-one minutes on devices, which can be more time than they spend asleep. Perhaps it has never been more important to consider how the natural world can help with our wellbeing. We instinctively know that being outside in a green environment can make us feel better; what is so exciting now is the evidence building to understand why that is the case.

How much evidence is there to prove that it works? 

The evidence base is continuing to emerge. A study by the University of Exeter found that people who live close to trees and green spaces are less anxious and depressed. Studies have also shown that even a short amount of time in nature can have an impact. As little as 20 minutes outside in green space can begin to help. Liisa Tyrvainen, Professor of the Natural Resources Institute in Finland suggests five hours a month is the lowest amount of time to get an effect, and 10 hours is optimum.

The evidence on the benefits of phytoncide is also building. Phytoncide is a substance produced by plants and trees to protect themselves from harmful germs. It is thought it can also help our own immune systems. Other work has shown the benefits of mycobacterium vaccae, a soil bacteria, which has been found to help improve energy levels and cognitive function.

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What are some of your favourite UK woodlands for practicing forest bathing? 

I actually don’t have a favourite place to practice shinrin-yoku, I just thoroughly enjoy getting outside and walking in the woods. I did, however, recently try it at Hainault Forest and it was quite special. And I also loved the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Wood. With only 13% tree cover across the UK, it is so important we protect our trees and woods for our own wellbeing and plant more trees. They provide so many benefits not only for our wellbeing, but also helping to clean the air, slowing the flow floodwaters, providing shade, homes for wildlife and helping tackle climate change. 

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