Several weeks ago I picked up a copy of
the December issue of Outside magazine in our orthopedists'
office and found this article
about Japanese "forest bathing." It made an impression on me
and I want to share it with readers who might be interested.
The article is available
with all of the text and photos that are in the hard copy. You don't
need a subscription to read it. (Note that all of the photos in this
entry are mine, however.)
The best mental and physical therapy I've ever found
is in the forest. This is one of the trails
on Chestnut Ridge near the Blue
Ridge Pkwy. in the Roanoke, VA area. (10-23-12)
I encourage you to either read the article and links online, borrow
the issue from a friend who subscribes, or locate a copy at a library.
I'll summarize it here here but there is so much great information
and advice for de-stressing your life and boosting your brainpower,
creativity, mood, and immune system that I recommend you read the entire
And no, this article isn't about becoming more athletic. It
applies to everyone from the most sedentary folks to the most ardent
endurance athletes. The common theme is the stress from which many of us
suffer and how to bring some equilibrium back into our lives.
THE POWER OF NATURE
This article reinforces one of the things I've known about myself since I've
been a child -- I always feel better when I'm outdoors,
preferably in the woods and the more remote the location the better.
A stream, pond, or lake intensifies the effect. Do does sunshine.
Even on a chilly December
it's peaceful to walk on the trails around Carvin's Cove
near Roanoke. The Appalachian
Trail follows the ridges in the background. (12-15-12)
Almost every runner who enjoys what (s)he's doing knows the pleasant
mental and physical effects of endorphins. You get mellow. All is right
with the world for a little while. Creativity flows.
You wish that feeling could last forever.
Even though I'm not able to run any more, my endorphins still start
flowing after about 45 minutes of hiking on a peaceful trail. Nothing is finer
than when my endorphins are flowing. (Well, OK, almost nothing
else!). I've talked about my "addiction" to endorphins several
times since I started writing this web journal in
2005. It's one of the things that keeps me physically active in my 60s.
And although the article doesn't address canines, I can guarantee you
that my two Labrador retrievers are the happiest when they're running
around in the woods with me or have some water to swim in! Just look at
them smile on a recent hike at Explore Park:
Romps in the forest are the
easiest way for me to get Casey, age 14 weeks old in this
photo, to calm down. Cody, nine
years old, has always been a woods aficionado. (11-26-12)
Because of all the physical, mental, and psychological benefits
I've derived from being outside
-- and physically active -- so many years of my life,
much of the information in this article is no
surprise to me or probably to many of our trail running friends who
also love getting mentally "lost" in nature.
What made the biggest impression on me is what I learned in the
article about the myriad of physiological changes that can occur when I
immerse myself in the woods -- and the fact that what's most
important is just being there, absorbing it all, and not
necessarily being very active.
Shadow stripes from the low mid-day
sun on Harkening Hill at the Peaks of Otter (11-16-12)
I gained other insights, too.
For example, I know first hand that walking and running have been
mostly beneficial for me
physically. What I didn't realize is that where I've walked and
run so much during my life -- in forests -- has had
additional physiological benefits over walking and running in more urban
The biggest changes in the physiological tests run on the research
subjects in Japan were found when they walked in peaceful forests away
from urban areas -- not necessarily in the wilderness -- and near water.
Abbot Lake reflects the lodge at
the Peaks of Otter on the Blue Ridge Pkwy. north of Roanoke.
A trail surrounds the lake,
an open invitation for visitors to stroll and "soak in" the scenery.
Now that I've read that, I can confirm it in my own experience. I
know how calming it is to me to gaze across a shimmering lake, listen to
the gurgling of a brook, or watch rhythmic waves hit the shore. I can
literally feel the ebb and flow of the tide in my gut.
I've never gotten the same degree of calming effects on an urban
greenway or in a subdivision.
At least one study cited in the article showed that walking outdoors
in a loud or chaotic urban setting was detrimental to the research
subjects, increasing their blood pressure, e.g., instead of lowering it.
Some urban parks and neighborhoods are less stressful and do provide
some benefits to those who run/walk/cycle there, however. Parts of the
Wolf Creek Greenway where I like to walk feel like they are more out in
the country than they really are:
Wolf Creek Greenway in Vinton, VA (10-22-12)
On the other hand, remote wilderness isn't a requirement either.
It's not necessary to be in the middle of nowhere in Colorado or
Montana to derive therapeutic benefits from nature. Most people in the
U.S., even the crowded East Coast, can find suitable peaceful places
within a 30-60-minute drive from their homes.
Here's a good example. This is a view from the top of Sharp Top in
the Peaks of Otter along the Blue Ridge Pkwy. less than an hour's drive
from Roanoke or Lynchburg:
View down to Abbott Lake and the
Peaks of Otter Lodge; Harkening Hill is across the road. (11-10-12)
That scene looks and feels more remote than it really is.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let me explain more about the
Japanese studies, the scientific results they've discovered, and some
implications for our own lives.
The photos in this entry are from hikes I've taken since we returned
to Virginia in October. All are from trails close to the Blue Ridge
Parkway and within an hour's drive from our house.
I also walk the dogs once or twice a day in the forest that is our
back yard (we have 12 acres of land, mostly wooded). It's almost as isolated from
civilization as some of the other places where I hike:
It's real handy to have forest
therapy in our own back yard when we're in VA!
Casey (11 weeks) runs to catch up
with Cody and me on one of our early morning walks.
Despite my Granny Knees (bone-on-bone from osteo-arthritis) I am able
with the help of semi-annual injections of Orthovisc to hike all day and
climb up and down mountains. One or both of our Labrador retrievers
accompany me on most of these hikes.
Jim still can't hike very far (or run at all) because of the knee he
injured in a bike accident two years ago but he's been riding his
mountain bike regularly on the Parkway and local greenway.
Jim rides into an overlook on the
Blue Ridge Pkwy. on his bike;
the Peaks of Otter are in the
Jim occasionally finds suitable trails through forests where he can ride,
such as Carvin's Cove. He
benefits some from "forest therapy" but not as much as when he was able
to run and hike deeper into the woods.
JAPAN'S "FOREST-BATHING" RESEARCH
Japan has some of the most Type-A, super-stressed people in the
world, folks who put in longer days at work than most typical Americans
There are other major sources of stress in Japan -- intense pressure
and competition for colleges and jobs, large populations in urban areas,
numerous earthquakes every year, and the third-highest suicide rate of
any developed country in the world.
Brilliant orange leaves at
Chestnut Ridge contrast nicely with the blue sky. (10-23-12)
To combat all this stress, the people in Japan are encouraged to
immerse themselves in nature as often as possible.
The idea behind
shinrin-yoku, a modern term that was inspired by ancient Shinto and
Buddhist practices, "is to let nature enter your body through all five
senses." (Quotes like this are from the article.)
How do they do this? With a lot of encouragement from their
government and medical professionals.
Red maple leaves appear to float
in the air at Explore Park. (10-26-12)
One very popular and effective remedy is to utilize their forests,
which cover two-thirds of the country.
Japan has 48 official Forest Therapy trails in its national
forests and parks. The government intends to designate another 52 Forest
Therapy sites in the next decade. Folks can either wander through them
on their own or join guided groups.
The practice has become very popular in Japan and is considered
standard preventative medicine there. About one quarter of the
population partakes in forest therapy AKA forest "bathing" in some way each year.
A typical sound while walking
through the forest in late fall is the crunch of leaves
underfoot. They smell good, too.
This trail is at Chestnut Ridge. (11-14-12)
If only that would happen in the United States!
We have so many beautiful national forests and public parks with
existing trails that more people could use at little additional cost to
WHAT QUALIFIES AS "FOREST BATHING?"
Here are some examples given in the article -- walking quietly
through natural habitats away from urban areas, absorbing the views, watching the wildlife,
listening to the sounds around them, tasting edible berries, feeling the
texture of bark, smelling the scent of pines, stopping to write down
their thoughts or enjoy a simple lunch under the trees.
Basically, "stopping to smell the roses," a cliché
often used to describe lollygagging.
These interesting tree roots drew
me a few yards off the trail recently at Explore Park. (12-3-12)
All of that appeals to me.
Even during the 30+ years I ran and competed in races I occasionally
relished quiet hikes on forest and mountain trails on rest days. I
enjoyed "smelling the roses" and noticing more than when I was running.
Those occasions increased as I got older and slower.
When I stopped running 3+
years ago because of my Granny Knees I rather quickly learned to let go of the
need for speed and feel so much less stress from feeling like I needed
to "train" all the time.
It's great not having that pressure any more.
I can spend all the time I want looking at, listening to, and smelling
the natural world around me. And I can take as many pictures as I want!
One of several balanced rocks on
Harkening Hill at the Peaks of Otter;
you have to go off-trail to see some of them.
Here's another insight I'm pondering, even as I've become less
dependent on gadgets when I'm walking: one thing the scientists
discovered is that the less you are tethered
to civilization when you're in the woods (or the mountains or desert or
beach or wherever you choose to unwind), the more calming benefits you get.
Wearing a GPS or heart-rate monitor, constantly checking your pace,
texting on your phone (!!), or listening to an iPod or MP3 player may be beneficial to training
in some ways but are
counter-productive to getting the most out of nature.
"You really need
to be present in it," the article asserts. The message is to be
more nature-engaged and leave the gizmos at home for the greatest
This was one of my "ah-ha" moments reading the article. I get it.
Twisted branches, dancing
shadows, brown lichens, a peek-through crevice formed by boulders . . .
lots to catch the eye of
attentive folks hiking to Buzzard's Roost on Sharp Top Mtn.
Even though I'm no longer competing in foot races and don't keep
nearly as much data as I used to, I still often record the distance and
time I'm hiking or cycling.
I've "progressed" a long way from all the years I was running races,
however. I don't keep weekly, monthly, or yearly mileage, the number of miles on each
pair of shoes, my pace, etc. I haven't kept a running-walking-cycling log
for two or three years. I've never worn headphones on the road or trail.
This sign on Sharp Top gives the
elevation but many peaks don't. Another hiker enjoys the view
of ridges and valleys from 3,875
feet in the Blue Ridge Mountains. (11-10-12)
I still like to know the elevation and distance on new trails,
however, so I'll continue to wear my Garmin Forerunner wrist GPS at
I'm not likely to stop taking a camera with me on hikes any time
soon, either. I think I'm more aware of my surroundings because
I'm often looking for scenic, unusual, and interesting things to
photograph when I'm walking.
Continued on the next page so it's easier to load the pictures . .
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil,
Cody the ultra Lab, and Casey-Pup
© 2012 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil