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For good health, bathe in a forest

By Michele S. Byers

With 130 miles of coastline, New Jersey residents know all about the joys of sunbathing at the beach, but how about “forest bathing”?

Yes, it is real and it can improve your health. And you don’t need to wear a bathing suit.

Forest bathing literally means soaking in the forest atmosphere. It originated nearly 35 years ago in Japan, where it is known as “shinrin-yoku” and it is now catching on in the United States.

Just as sunbathers on a beach enjoy the smell of salt air, the feel of sand in their toes and the sound of waves breaking, forest bathers use all of their senses, too. The scent of pine trees, the sound of singing birds and flowing brooks, the soothing green palette of leaves and the varied textures of plants are all part of the experience.

The result, according to shinrin-yoku practitioners, is a feeling of relaxation and rejuvenation that promotes a myriad of measurable health benefits, from lower blood pressure to a stronger immune system.

The term “forest bathing” comes from a 1982 article by the former head of Japan’s Forestry Agency. Early researchers theorized that health benefits were derived from substances called phytoncides, which are antimicrobial organic compounds given off by plants. Breathing in these “forest essences” was thought to bring about relaxation.

Later research focused on the stresses of living indoors in a technology oriented society. Japan’s leading researcher on forest therapy, Yoshifumi Miyazaki of Chiba University, believes humans are hard-wired to need nature in their lives.

“Five million years have passed since humans became humans,” he wrote in a paper on the science of nature therapy. “The men and women living in modern times have therefore spent more than 99.99 percent of their evolutionary history in natural environments.”

He concluded that living in our modern society’s artificial environments is inherently stressful.

Miyazaki conducted physiological experiments to examine whether spending time in forests actually does improve health. In one study, he found that the average concentration of cortisol, a stress hormone found in saliva, was 13.4 percent lower in people who gazed on forest scenery for 20 minutes than in people in urban settings.

Another Japanese researcher, Li Qing of Nippon Medical School in Tokyo, conducted experiments to find out if spending time in nature increases the activity of natural killer (NK) cells, a component of the immune system that fights cancer. The study found that NK activity was significantly boosted in two groups that spent time in forests.

Like many practices that began in other countries, forest bathing first emerged in California, where organized groups now take therapy trips to forests.

As far as I know, organized forest bathing has not found its way to New Jersey yet – but don’t let that stop you.

Just about anyone can practice shinrin-yoku; you do not have to be a fitness fanatic or an expert naturalist. Unlike a strenuous hike, forest bathing is not meant to burn calories, build muscles or reach destinations. Unlike nature walks, the goal is not to count species or interpret wildlife behavior.

Beautiful forests are found in every corner of this state we’re in and this is a great time of year to take a therapeutic stroll to soothe your senses and boost your health. Simply relax and soak in the forest around you.

To find a forest trail near you, visit the New York New Jersey Trail Conference website at www.nynjtc.org, New Jersey Conservation Foundation’s trailhead locator map at www.njconservation.org/recreation.htm, the New Jersey Trails website at www.njtrails.org or the New Jersey Hiking website at www.njhiking.com

Michele S. Byers is the executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Far Hills.

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