Ever thought about ‘forest bathing’? It’s not that weird
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Imagine for a moment you’ve been stuck inside a building all day with no opportunity to walk outside. When you finally do leave the office or school building or wherever you’ve been cooped up for hours — think how much better you feel when that first blast of outside air hits your face.
The fresh air doesn’t only feel good, it may also improve your overall health. That’s a simple way to describe at least part of the theory behind something known as “forest bathing.”
No, it has nothing to do with a nice float in a pond in the woods — although forest bathing can be just as relaxing.
“The Japanese term for forest bathing is shinrin-yoku,” explains author and former Louisville resident Sarah Ivens. “The Japanese government spent millions of dollars studying the physiological and psychological effects of spending time in nature and discovered (forest bathing) has many positive effects on your mental health and physical well-being.”
Further studies in countries such as Norway, Finland, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States have come to similar conclusions. The United States’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention even says that “time outdoors may promote mental health and stress reduction.”
In her new book, “Forest Therapy: Seasonal Ways to Embrace Nature for a Happier You,” Ivens, who got her doctorate at the University of Louisville, explores the reasons why spending time outdoors lowers stress levels and anxiety, improves creativity, plus boosts immunity and increases longevity.
“When my 7-year-old son comes home from spending his day in school, we don’t sit down to do homework until we’ve gone outside for a period of time,” said Ivens. “It’s like walking a puppy. We head to the walking path behind our house and he can just spend time in the fresh air running, jumping and playing. Children need to get out their energy and they need to do it outdoors where things are green and they feel free.”
Ivens would like to see parents spend less time and money on organized — and often indoor — lessons and sports teams and more time set aside for their kids to play freely in nature.
“As parents, we have been conditioned to believe that what we need to give our children are more skills, like Mandarin lessons and ballet classes,” she said, “but in fact when they are spending time in nature our children become more sociable, they are more courageous and inquisitive — and guess what? It’s free!”
While researching her book, Ivens, who is also a former Courier Journal employee, came across a tangible reason that spending time in nature is so beneficial. Turns out it’s not fresh air but instead supercharged air that helps us feel better.
Forest air, she said, is rich with essential oils which plants and trees emit to protect themselves from insects and germs. When grouped together, these essential oils are called phytoncides and when humans inhale this forest air, it appears to improve the function of our immune system.
A few of Ivens’ favorite spots for forest bathing in and around Louisville are Cherokee Park, 745 Cochran Hill Road, Bernheim Forest, 2075 Clermont Road, and Hermitage Farm, 10500 W U.S. Highway 42 in Goshen.
So, are you out of luck if you don’t live or work near a forest? Nope. Luckily it’s not just forest air that provides benefits.
“Studies show that just taking a walk in a city park or along a tree-lined street produces many of the same benefits,” said Ivens. “It’s about getting outdoors with the specific intent of connection with nature in a healing way, to open all the sense and dynamically interact with the land whether a city park or a country forest.”
There are other advantages to this outdoor lifestyle. Unlike pricey gym memberships or home gym equipment, forest bathing, as we mentioned before, won’t cost you anything.
(OK, that’s not totally true. A decent pair of walking shoes and a good water-resistant jacket with a hood will be helpful.)
Another plus to the practice? You can schedule your outdoor time into any part of your day and it’s always available — 365 days a year.
“There’s no such thing as bad weather, there is just bad clothing,” Ivens said. “Get outside, walk through a snow drift, climb a tree. Did you bang your knee? Here’s a Band-Aid. Now, carry on.”
But hang on. What if it’s been so long since you deliberately spent time outdoors with the intent of connecting with nature that you can’t remember how to get started? Not a problem.
The book is full of suggestions that may seem simple, but the truth is, we’re not going on enough picnics, hanging out in a hammock, observing the seasonal changes in nature or having snowballs fights in the winter.
So Ivens offers suggestions for children and adults. Not only for warm weather months but for every season of the year, including winter.
“Exposure to cold weather will increase your energy for hours afterward,” said Ivens. “Just a short walk outside at lunchtime will keep your inner oil fires burning through an afternoon of work or parenting.”
Forest Therapy is also about enhancing your well-being and relationships through the uninterrupted time you spend in nature interacting with your kids, your spouse and friends.
Of course, a little solitude can be a good thing now and again and Ivens advocates for this type of self-care as well.
In her book Ivens writes, “Learning to fit more nature into your life should not be a race or a challenge. There isn’t a distance marker you have to tick off, no pedometer to check, but the longer one devotes to it, over time the more beneficial the relationship becomes.”
Long before you turn the final page of “Forest Therapy” you’ll find yourself wondering why you didn’t figure out this simple solution to so many of life’s little ailments a lot sooner.
Just remember it’s never too late to step out the door and if you just keep putting one foot in front of the other, you’ll end up bathed in nature’s restorative power, no matter the season or the weather.
“It’s about making this a priority and creating a habit that makes you feel so good that you don’t want to break it,” Ivens said.