After surviving what many in Vancouver have come to call “the worst winter in decades”- spring has finally come with its flamboyant showcase of pink Japanese Cherry blossoms. With the slow, yet steady increase in temperatures, Vancouverites have wasted no time in venturing out into the great outdoors. It appears, that nature is again open for business.
Everywhere, there are signs of people getting a head start on summer. Hiking trails are beginning to repopulate; parks have begun to teem with life and, though the water is still a bit too cold for my taste, there is a resurgence in water sporting activities.
The increasingly frequent breaks of good weather has been successful in drawing out, even the most environmentally recluse among us: me. This weekend, I went on my first hike in Vancouver. Last Saturday, myself, along with a group of young people from the Oakridge Adventist church piled into two mini vans and drove an hour away to Port Moody to hike around Bunzten Lake. Okay, I agree, in retrospect, this easy trail is more of an elongated walk, however, calling it a hike definitely makes me feel more accomplished. After all, baby steps…right?
Being born on the small, tropical island of Jamaica, one would expect me to be more of an “outdoorsy type”. However, I am far from it. My relationship with nature is like my relationship with peanut butter. I enjoy a taste every once in awhile, but I don’t necessarily want to bask in it. Nevertheless, having relocated to Vancouver four years ago to attend the University of British Columbia, I have definitely become more of a lover of this thing called “nature”. After all, when you live in such a beautiful province, how can you not?
This weekend proved to be one of those experiences that had me regretting my previously “offhandish” disposition towards nature. It is actually not so bad after all. Being immersed among the trees, mountains and lakes was nothing short of refreshing. After four hours of walking and dozens of selfies later, our revitalized and reinvigorated repertoire of 15 regrouped for a picnic in the woods before heading back to the city.
This positive relationship between between health and nature has been conceived of for centuries. In fact, in 1854, Henry David Thoreau, author of the well known book, Walden, purported that “the tonic of the wilderness is the classic prescription for civilization and its discontents”. Since then, there has been mounting scientific evidence supporting the health benefits associated with being out in nature, or what is now called- eco therapy.
The Japanese practice of “forest bathing” is one of these forms of ecotherapy. If you are like me, a number of things come to mind when you hear this term. When I first heard the expression my veering imagination conjured multiple scenarios ranging from group bathing rituals to using tree barks and branches as bath sponges. Needless to say, “forest bathing” incorporates none of these notions (even though group bathhouses in the forest does sound like a stellar tourism attraction.)
This expression, coined by the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries in 1982, is known in the local language as “Shinrin-yoku” and translates literally to mean “taking in the forest atmosphere”. In other words, it refers to the action of being in the presence of trees to soak up the sights, smells and sounds of a natural setting. Though similar, practitioners are quick to differentiate this activity from taking a hike or nature walk. As described by one person “a nature walk’s objective is to provide informational content and a hike is to reach a destination, a Shinrin-yoku walk’s objective is to give participants an opportunity to slow down, appreciate things that can only be seen or heard when one is moving slowly, and take a break from the stress of everyday life”.
Forest bathing has now become a part of the national public health program in Japan and is proven to have numerous health benefits such as lowering heart rate and blood pressure; reducing stress hormone production; boosting the immune system as well as improving overall feelings of wellbeing.
This seemingly simple idea has proven to be of such importance that from 2004 to 2012 Japanese officials spent approximately 4 million dollars studying the physiological and psychological effects of forest bathing. Here are just a couple of the findings:
First, Qing Li, a professor at Nippon Medical School in Tokyo, in a 2009 study found that the various essential oils, generally called phytoncide, which trees emit to protect themselves from germs and insects actually seems to improve immune system function. This is because the phytoncide appears to improve the activity of the human natural killer (NK) cells which are responsible for providing rapid responses to viral-infected cells and respond to tumor formation and aid in cancer prevention. As such, forest air doesn’t just feel fresher and better- inhaling phytoncide seems to actually improve immune system function.
Moreover, in another study conducted by the Center for Environment, Health and Field Sciences at Japan’s Chiba University, “it was found that subjects were more rested and less inclined to stress after a forest bath. The team measured the subject’s salivary cortisol (which increases with stress), blood pressure, pulse rate and heart rate variability during a day in the city and compared those to the same biometrics taken during a day with a 30- minute forest visit. It was concluded that forest environments promote lower concentrations of cortisol, lower pulse rate, lower blood pressure, greater parasympathetic nerve activity, and lower sympathetic nerve activity than do city environments”. In other words, being in the forest is not only a great stress reliever but also a really good preventative measure against stress.
Finally, being in and viewing natural beauty is efficacious in inspiring a sense of awe which can also accrue significant soothing health benefits. In a recent study on the awe experienced by astronauts viewing Earth from space, “it was found that both perceptual (e.g admiring a tall grove of trees or the Grand Canyon) and conceptual vastness (e.g trying to wrap your mind around the creation of Earth) can inspire awe in humans”. In other words, experiencing these feelings of vastness and being a small part of an incredibly big and complexed universe enables us to put our problems into perspective and not sweat the small stuff!
Overall, these studies all appear to reinforce the fact that frequent “doses of nature” are beneficial, not only for our immune system, but for our mental and overall well-being.
I know that by now you are convinced about the amazing benefits associated with being out in nature and are itching to get out there and enjoy a forest bath!
You are not alone. I am also challenging myself to participate in this activity and I need you all to keep me accountable! This month, I am vowing to to visit three nature trails and I will report to you in a subsequent blog post my experience with forest bathing on these trails. Here are the trails I hope to visit:
I know what you are thinking… you attended UBC for four years and have never once been on this trail? Guilty as charged (Does it make it worst that I lived on campus?). Nevertheless, this 73 kilometer park provides an ideal place to bring your family for a day of immersing one’s self in nature. Moreover, this hidden treasure consists of a network of interconnected trails providing a great environment to explore small 15 minute segments at a time.
Located in North Vancouver, this trail is a favourite among Vancouverites. This scenic route crosses numerous creek bridges and has impressive lookouts with views of Deep Cove and Indian Arm far below. Moreover, this heavily forested greenspace has seen very little urban development making it the perfect getaway for forest bathing.
This is an ideal place for forest bathing as it located only 30 minutes away from downtown Vancouver, yet it feels as if one is in a remote forest. Lynn Canyon Park is indeed its own rainforest world nestled deep in the forests of North Van. This nature trail also has a number of beautiful sights including a suspension bridge and a waterfall called the Twin Falls.
As summer approaches, I am super excited to get out and immerse myself in nature! I hope you feel inspired to do so too. At the OAC kids camp, we have weekly trips to scenic green spaces in the city to enable your kids to enjoy the benefits of forest bathing. Some of these locations include the Van Deusen Botanical gardens and Queen Elizabeth park just to name a few.
Information gathered from:
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