‘Shinrin yoku’ or ‘forest bath’ is a Japanese term that, literally translated, means ‘to absorb the atmosphere of the forest’ and is used to refer to those walks through green spaces where calm invades the body and mind of the walker. Where the breeze gently caresses the skin, the sounds and smells of the environment become intoxicated and the place is abandoned with a feeling of inner peace greater than that which was entered. A new study suggests that this practice is more beneficial than previously thought.
A research team from the University of East Anglia has come to the conclusion that living close to nature and spending time outdoors means very significant improvements to health. Exposure to green spaces reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular problems, premature death, premature birth, stress or high blood pressure.
The study has been carried out gathering global information of more than 290 million peopleand all the results indicate that the population with higher levels of green space exposure are more likely to enjoy good general health. The information collected came from 20 countries, including the United Kingdom, the United States, Spain, France, Australia and Japan, where the practice of ‘forest bathing’ is already common among its population.
The study’s lead author, Caoimhe Twohig-Bennett of Norwich Medical School, says they have ‘gathered evidence from some 140 studies to see if nature really causes improvements in health ‘. Until now, the impact on long-term well-being has not been fully understood.
The benefits of the forest in our health
The green spaces were defined as ‘open and undeveloped places with natural vegetation’, as well as urban green spaces that included parks and green areas on the streets of cities. The team compared the health of people with little access to green spaces and those with greater exposure. ‘Spending time or living near natural green spaces is associated with significant improvements in health,’ says Twohig-Bennett.
In the UK alone, 11.7 million business days are lost annually due to stress, depression or anxiety. One of the most significant discoveries is that exposure to green spaces reduces the levels of salivary cortisol, a physiological marker of stress. Twohig-Bennett hopes that “the research will inspire people to go out more often and promote the creation, regeneration and maintenance of green spaces in residential areas and disadvantaged communities.”
The researchers associate this relationship between better health and time in green spaces with the greatest number of options for physical activities and socializing. It could also be related to exposure to bacteria and phytoncides, organic compounds with antibacterial properties released by trees.
‘Forest baths are a widespread therapy in Japan, either relaxing in the forest or walking around in it. Our study proves that, perhaps, they have been successful with it, “concludes Twohig-Bennett.