Take a “Forest Bath” – Your Urban-Weary Body Will Thank You

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As we navigate the urban jungle we live in, stress levels are undoubtedly high.

Competition is everywhere – we’re regularly exposed to social comparisons as people flaunt their wealth or jobs – and even if we don’t care about how others are doing, our livelihoods are on the line; cost of living sure is high in the city.

That’s not to say all of this is bad. Many people have persevered and are successful, so what it all boils down to is how we manage the stress and prevent it from getting in the way of our work, health, and success.

One great lesson we can all learn, is from the Japanese, who have long known that one key ingredient to relaxation and well-being is to return to our natural roots and be at one with nature. Their simple suggestion: Forest bathing!

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What’s a forest bath?

Forest bathing, or shinrin-yoku, which means to be in the presence of trees, was part of Japan’s public health program in 1982. This form of therapy was well received and quickly took off because nature appreciation, such as picnicking under cherry blossoms, is a favourite activity for Japanese.

But you don’t need to be Japanese or be in Japan to reap these amazing health rewards. A pitstop at your local park is all it takes! There’s something deep in the evolutionary and biological design of living organisms that make us positively receptive to the essences of nature. After all, all living organisms must seek ways to nourish themselves through the natural environment.

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Why is nature beneficial to us?

In an earlier article on how to harness the benefits of our stone-aged minds, we explained how our minds were designed to work optimally in environments that resembled the world our ancestors lived in. Such environments include natural foliage, open landscapes, and abundant sources of water, and our minds and bodies have a natural liking for such sceneries.

Studies show that we feel more positive and experience better moods when we’re immersed in environments that resemble the Savannah. Our brains and perceptions are simply wired to find these sights and sounds intriguing and appealing.

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The Center for Environment, Health and Field Sciences in Japan’s Chiba University conducted experiments on people who tried forest bathing and measured their salivary cortisol (which increases with stress), blood pressure, pulse rate, and heart rate variability.

Compared to people in the city, people who spent even just 30 minutes in the company of trees had lower concentrations of cortisol, lower pulse rates, and lower blood pressures. Being in nature made people more relaxed, more rested, and less on edge.

This is due to various essential oils, generally called phytoncide, which can be found in wood, plants, and some fruits and vegetables, which trees emit to protect themselves from germs and insects. Forest air doesn’t just feel fresher and better — inhaling phytoncide seems to improve immune system function.

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It’s so easy and accessible, there’s no excuse not to.

It’s mind-boggling how easily accessible and inexpensive this remedy to city stress is! Just a brief visit to the park can relieve stress levels and soothe the spirit. Some popular locations locals go to are MacRitchie Reservoir TreeTop Walk, Singapore Botanic Gardens, Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve etc.

Other studies have found that immersing in nature reduced hostility and depressive symptoms, coupled with increased liveliness. We don’t seem to need a lot of exposure to gain from nature — some regular daily contact appears to improve our immune system function and our well-being. Unfortunately, many of us spend much of our lives interacting with 2D screens. Ironically, the “break” we think we’re having from work by watching videos on our electronic devices isn’t going to get us very far. There’s a whole 3D world out there which affords us a break from all the noises of social media.

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The wisdom and benefits of the natural environment has long been evident to the zen culture of Japan and Buddhism at large. Buddha himself spent a lot of time in nature and meditated under the Bodhi tree as he sought enlightenment.

Japan’s Zen masters also like to ask, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears, does it make a sound?” To discover the answer, masters do nothing, and yet from inaction they gain illumination, enlightenment, and insights. Forest bathing works the same way; just be at one with nature and the trees. You don’t have to hike, count steps on a Fitbit, or jump through hoops. Just relax.

In Henry David Thoreau’s 1854 essay, Walden: Or, Life in the Woods, he saw the wilderness as the antidote to civilization and its discontents. Now we know why. Take a break from technology and give it a go today! 

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