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Reducing Stress with a Walk in the Forest

     

“In every walk with Nature one receives far more than he seeks.” ― John Muir*

For many people, a walk in the forest has long been a relaxing and rejuvenating escape from daily stresses. There is growing medical evidence that a stroll through the forest is much more, evidence identifying the physical and mental health benefits. Proponents of the mental health benefits refer to a more structured therapeutic practice called forest therapy.

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The Association of Nature and Forest Therapy defines forest therapy as a research-based framework for supporting healing and wellness through immersion in forests and other natural environments. It involves short (2 to 4 hour) guided experiences in a forest or other natural area with a certified professional. It does not involve vigorous activity and is accessible to virtually anyone regardless of fitness ability or condition.

Most of us spend very little time outdoors, particularly in natural environments, instead of spending the bulk of our time indoors, in a car (or other enclosed transportation) or in urban environments. On average, Americans spend 87 percent of their time indoors and an additional 6 percent in an enclosed vehicle.

The forest therapy movement in the U.S. grew out of the Japanese practice of Shinrin-yoku, which translates to “forest bathing.” Shinrin-yoku promotes physical and mental health by immersing yourself in the sites, sounds and smells of the forest.

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Forest therapy differs from a hike, which may have a specific destination, or from a nature walk with an educational purpose. A forest therapy walk is focused on slowing down, appreciating all aspects of the environment. According to proponents, a walk in the forest can be therapeutic, countering some of the negative effects of our technology driven, climate controlled, fast-paced, often highly stressed daily lives.

The physical and mental health benefits from exposure to forests and other natural environments include beneficial effects on cardiovascular and immune systems and reduced stress levels. A study by researchers in Japan found that for a group of urban office workers, the physiological and psychological relaxation benefits lasted three to five days after forest therapy.

One study found that compared to an urban walk, a leisurely forest walk led to 12 percent lower stress hormone levels, as well as decreased blood pressure and heart rate and boosted immune function. Another study found lower stress levels in people walking in the woods for 40 minutes compared to people walking in a laboratory setting for the same time. Studies have also found that walking in nature improves attention and reduces ADHD symptoms in children and it has also been associated with increased creativity and problem-solving ability.

Several studies have associated nature walks with improvements in mood. A study from researchers at the University of Michigan looked at the effects of a walk in the woods on people with depression. Compared to people walking in urban areas, people walking in the natural areas showed increases in mood memory. The researchers concluded that interacting with nature may be useful clinically as a supplement to existing treatments for major depression. Forest therapy has shown the potential to help in recovery from trauma and PTSD.

While forest therapy may not cure any specific conditions, it may be just the needed antidote to too much screen time and stress in our everyday lives. With very little cost, effort or side effects, this therapy, or at least a regular leisurely walk in the woods, may be worth a try.

*John Muir (1838 – 1914) was a Scottish-American naturalist, author, and early advocate of preservation of wilderness in the United States. His activism helped to preserve the Yosemite Valley, Sequoia National Park and other wilderness areas. He was co-founder of the Sierra Club.

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