Monday, July 23, 2018

Forest Bathing

For years I've enjoyed taking long walks in the woods. But it's only from reading a recent New York Times article that I learned I've been following the Japanese practice of shinrin yoku - "forest bathing."

There's nothing new about walking in the woods. Our ancestors spent their lives in forests. I assume many forest-dwelling genes are buried in our DNA. But as our species has become progressively more urbanized we spend most of our time indoors. A 2001 EPA survey reported that we Americans spend 87% of our waking time indoors, and another 6% in an enclosed vehicle!

In 1982 the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries coined the term translated as "forest bathing" to describe the effort to imbibe what it saw as the healing power of nature by going into green areas with a mindful attitude. Since then, in the U.S., an "Association of Nature Forest Therapy" has trained and certified multiple cohorts of forest guides. A Google search shows that forest bathing is catching on as a commercial "back to nature" trend.

As an adolescent, Walden and Henry Beston's The Outermost House were among my favorite books. It seemed obvious that there was something very "natural" about being in "nature."

Three days ago the Journal of the American Medical Association published an important study demonstrating that creating green spaces of grass and trees on what had been garbage-strewn abandoned lots has a positive mental health effect on the neighborhood. This was a methodologically rigorous, randomized study that is likely to convince skeptics that there's more than sentimental anecdote behind the endorsement of time in the woods as a promoter of health and well-being.

In an aggressively capitalist society, it only takes a few nanoseconds for good ideas to become "monetized" and the focus for snake oil style hype. On the web I found vendors hinting that walking in the forest will combat cancer. But despite the hype surrounding the forest bathing concept, if I were still in clinical practice I would add spending time in "nature" as a recommendation to many of my patients.

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