Walking in the woods has measurable health benefits, and professor Yoshifumi Miyazaki is studying how to spread those benefits to as many people as possible. According to his research, spending time in nature can lower your blood pressure and decrease stress hormones, with the effects of a hike lasting for days. You can even lower stress by keeping a plant in your home or workplace. Dr. Miyazaki is even researching whether a VR simulation of a forest can give some of the same benefits.
We took a walk with Dr. Miyazaki in Okutama Forest, part of Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park, two hours from central Tokyo. Okutama is one of many forests recognised by the Japanese government as a forest bathing facility—that just means that it’s especially conducive to stress-reducing, health-improving walks. Unlike advanced hiking or climbing routes, these walks are accessible to people with health issues or of advanced age, a growing section of Japan’s population.
To certify a forest, regulators walk through it, measure their own physiological responses, and evaluate routes for things like a gentle grade and well-maintained paths.
With backgrounds in both horticulture and medicine, Dr. Miyazaki is specially positioned to research the health benefits of nature—in fact, he says, he’s the only full-time researcher leading studies in forest bathing, known in Japanese as shinrin-yoku. But he’s found the global medical community receptive to his message, as many countries deal with ageing populations and a widespread need for improved preventative medicine.
In the U.S., forest bathing has become one of many trendy wellness activities that retreats and resorts add to their menu of services. Unlike Japan, the United States has no regulatory body to certify forest bathing facilities, but Miyazaki says that’s not necessary. Find a well-maintained park or forest with fresh air, gently sloping paths, and distance from noise and crowds. Walk quietly and calmly, stay off your phone, and pay attention to the sights and sounds around you. Soak it in so when you’re back at work, you can call up the memory of this peace and quiet.