The Surprising Health Benefits of the Great Outdoors

Picture: Kakidai (CC)

Florence Williams writes at Outside:

WITH THE LARGEST CONCENTRATION of broad-leafed evergreens in Japan, mountainous Chichibu-Tama-Kai is an ideal place to put into practice the newest principles of wellness science. In a grove of rod-straight Japanese red pine, Kunio pulled a thermos from his massive daypack and served us some mountain-grown, bark-flavored wasabi-root tea. The idea with shinrin-yoku, a term coined by the government in 1982 but inspired by ancient Shinto and Buddhist practices, is to let nature enter your body through all five senses, and this was the taste part. I stretched out across the top of a cool, mossy boulder. A duck quacked. I was feeling pretty mellow, and tests would soon validate this: between the beginning and the end of the two-hour hike, my blood pressure had dropped a couple of points. Ito’s had dropped even more.

We knew this because we were on one of Japan’s 48 official Forest Therapy trails, designated for shinrin-yoku by Japan’s Forestry Agency. In an effort to benefit the Japanese and find nonextractive ways to use forests, which cover 67 percent of the country’s landmass, the government has funded about $4 million in forest-bathing research since 2004. It intends to designate a total of 100 Forest Therapy sites within 10 years. Visitors here are routinely hauled off to a cabin where rangers measure their blood pressure, part of an effort to provide ever more data to support the project.

The Japanese have good reason to require unwinding: In addition to those long workdays, pressure and competition for schools and jobs have helped Japan achieve the third-highest suicide rate in the developed world (after South Korea and Hungary). Ten percent of the country’s 128 million residents live in greater Tokyo, where rush hour is so crowded that white-gloved workers shove people onto Metro trains, leading to another coinage, tsukin-jigoku—commuter hell. On top of all that, the small island nation trembles and yaws with more than 1,500 earthquakes a year. The tsunami that hit in 2011 killed 20,000 people, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant suffered a triple meltdown, and now some of the country’s prized rice has radioactive cesium in it.

So it makes sense that Japan’s scientists are in the vanguard of knowing how green spaces soothe the body and brain. While a small but impressive shelf of psychological research in recent decades suggests that spending time in nature improves cognition, relieves anxiety and depression, and even boosts empathy, scientists in Japan are measuring what’s actually happening to our cells and neurons. Led by Yoshifumi Miyazaki from the University of Chiba and Qing Li from the Nippon Medical School in Tokyo, they’re using field tests, hormone analysis, and new brain-imaging technology to uncover how the magic works on a molecular level. Once we know that, it’s news we can use.

“The Japanese work is essential, a Rosetta stone,” says Alan C. Logan, co-author of the recent book Your Brain on Nature. “We have to validate the ideas scientifically, through stress physiology, or we’re still stuck at Walden Pond.” Americans have often relegated nature to the romantic realm of Thoreau and Abbey. Viewing it as medicine is still largely foreign. “Studying the impact of the natural world on the brain is actually a scandalously new idea,” says Richard Louv, author of the 2008 bestseller Last Child in the Woods—the book that minted the term nature deficit disorder—and The Nature Principle, his 2010 follow-up about adults. “It should’ve been studied 30 to 50 years ago.”

But the Japanese evidence is appearing at a good time. Books like Louv’s, combined with an explosion in new digital distractions and malaises, are helping to define a cultural moment, what might be called a new slow-nature movement. We are rediscovering our inherent biophilia—what Harvard entomologist E. O. Wilson and Yale social ecologist Stephen Kellert defined as humanity’s affinity for nature. And we see now that we have become what John Muir described as “tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people.”

Indeed, in 2008, the world reached a curious milestone: more people lived in urban areas than outside of them. In the U.S., urban areas grew faster in 2010 and 2011 than suburban regions for the first time since the 1920s. According to Nicholas Carr’s 2010 book The Shallows, the average American spends at least eight hours a day looking at some sort of electronic screen. Then we try to relax by watching TV. Bad idea. Research shows that this only makes us crabbier. Logan asserts that, since the age of the Internet, North Americans have become more aggressive, more narcissistic, more distracted, more depressed, and less cognitively nimble. Oh yeah, and fatter.

And don’t think you’re off the hook if you exercise outdoors. You are quite likely still tethered to civilization. Perhaps you’re strapped to a heart monitor or headset. Admit it: Have you brought your phone? Are you clocking wind sprints? Sure, you are deriving some mental and physical benefits, but evidence is mounting that to get the most out of nature, you really need to be present in it, not distracted by your own great story of self.

Read more here.  Or stop reading and go outside.

7 Comments on "The Surprising Health Benefits of the Great Outdoors"

  1. Anarchy Pony | Jan 9, 2013 at 10:50 pm |

    Sky; wet, water, blue, film at eleven.

  2. Revolutionary7G | Jan 9, 2013 at 11:48 pm |

    I would go outside……..but the chemtrails man, the chemtrails!!

  3. BuzzCoastin | Jan 10, 2013 at 2:55 am |

    Who woulda thunk it?
    Nature is a healthy environment.

    Back in the day I went to October Fest (München)
    stayed a month and drank lots of beer & gained lots of weight.
    Flew back to Hawaii and lived in the forest for a few months
    came out skinny as a rail.
    Everyone I know from the forest has gotten fat since leaving.
    (Except Ronny, he always had a Buddha gut.)

    • It’s actually Hotei, the god of happiness, that is portrayed with the fat gut.

      • BuzzCoastin | Jan 10, 2013 at 7:44 pm |

        I hadn’t caught that
        but you might notice that Chinese Buddha’s
        also have the “Big Gut”
        as opposed to skinny Theravada Buddhas
        the Chinese Buddha’s Big Gut
        was a sign of the bounty of Providence

  4. I used to hike in the Japanese woods a lot. I’ve also done the tsukin-jigoku thing. You can drink beer/booze anywhere in Japan. That made both of those experiences even better.

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