I make it a point to hike when I travel. It’s one way I keep my body fit. One body, one life. Moreover, I’ve always had a preference to forest walks. Desert, open ridges, beaches, and other places without trees, they are fine. Still, forests always felt better. There is science behind it! Let’s explore the mental and physical benefits of forest hiking.
Exercise: For Body, Mind and Spirit
I’ve covered the physical benefits of hiking. There is no way to improved bodily function, no shortcut, than exercise. Studies show that regular exercise also improves brain function at all ages, making people smarter. It also makes you happier, exercise releases chemicals that elevate your mood, lowers risk of depression and anxiety. If you feel anxious or down, exercising is the best thing for you. The result is greater self confidence and well being. Happiness. And, hiking is an excellent form of cardiovascular exercise.
(Since 2008, I have run numerous hiking groups on Meetup.com in California Central Coast, in Hawaii and in the Bay Area, with 2500 members currently in two hiking groups.)
So hiking is good exercise. But is forest hiking really better than hiking in a desert or open ridge? Is it better than urban hiking?
Forest Immersion: Shinrin’Yoku
Forest hiking is better, and there is science behind it. Over 40 years of studies show that walking in the forest — above all other locales — improves your mental and physical health.
That is why, starting in the 20th Century, Japan began to cover forest immersion under all of its major medical plans. Korea followed soon after. Walking in the forest, over anywhere else, has a plethora of wellness benefits. Forest hiking not only makes you happy, it makes you healthy as well.
Shinrin Yoku (森林浴) is the therapeutic practice of forest immersion in Japan. Numerous scientific studies over the last 40 years show the benefits of Shinrin Yoku:
Physical, Medical Benefits:
- Improved immune system function,
- Lower glucose levels,
- Increased Natural Killer cell activity,
- Reduced blood pressure and pathological indicators of heart disease,
- Improved arterial stiffness and pulmonary function,
- Reduced pulse rate.
Mental and Spiritual Benefits
- Stress Reduction,
- Reduced depression, hostility levels,
- Improved mood and relaxation levels,
- Improved Cognitive Function.
Improved cognitive function? Yes, Forest Immersion makes you smarter. Better still, the benefits of Shinrin’Yoku last 7-30 days after immersion. Smarter and calmer. Mood is a function of brain chemistry. Reduced stress levels as measured by cortisol levels, a function of brain chemistry.
How do forests give us all this? As upright hominids, we evolved in forests. Could it be the body’s primal response ? Urban environments are stressful, the concrete jungle, harsh lighting and sounds. We live in little boxes, we drive little metal boxes, or ride in them, to sit in front of screens blasting photons at us.
I kept plants in my office. Still, the best part of my workday was generally lunch, when I could get outside for a few minutes. These are some of the unique things found in forests:
- Essential oils from fragrant trees
- Unique fungi, bacteria, lichen, pollens in the air
- Subdued light levels, only 5% of that of the city.
- Improved, stable thermal environment, compared to urban or open ranges.
It is the entire immersion experience, the sights, sounds and smells, even the taste of the forest, all of these combine with the physical exercise to provide benefits far beyond merely exercising in a gym. It could be these are essential for proper immune system function, proper cardio-pulmonary system, endocrine and other bodily functions.
Most gyms, lets face it, they are smelly. People Rave about Bigram Yoga, and I enjoy it as well. Yet, I can’t help it in thinking how much hot dandruff and perspiration does one inhale in an hour and a quarter? How much better to breath in essential oils, and the natural flora and fauna? It turns out, a lot better.
Finally, walking in the forest can be done in a fully present, aware and meditative state, with all the proven benefits of meditation.
Forest therapy uses the medically proven effects of walking in a forest and observing the environment to promote feelings of relaxation and improve both physical and mental health.
Whether you call it hike-o-therapy or shinrin-yoku, walking in the forest is therapeutic for the body, the mind and the spirit.
Take an hour or two per week. A week-long immersion is even better.
Further Reading on Shinrin Yoku
The National Center for Biotechonolgy Information has numerous studies:
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