The surprising benefits of taking a walk in the woods

Almost every day, in almost every kind of weather, I take a walk with my dog in the woods. This is normally a very pleasant thing to do and intuitively, it feels like it should be a pretty healthy thing too.


Meg, the border collie, in a rare still moment for a selfie during our walk.

Scientists in Japan have studied the physiological effects of spending time amongst the trees. They’ve found 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. Another study also found increased natural killer cell activity, an effect that lasted for days after exposure.

A few years ago, I read Arboraetum America by Diana Beresford-Kroeger. She talks a lot about the health benefits of being in the presence of trees because of the chemical substances they emit as they go about the business of defending themselves against insects and decay. Today the aerosols from fallen leaves, balsam fir and everything else in the forest smelled extraordinary. Intoxicating even. I really wish smell-o-vision was a thing, so I could share it with you.

There have been articles in the New York Times and Globe and Mail about the Japanese concept of shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing. In Japan, people are encouraged, as a matter of public policy, to take in the forest air because of the proven benefits for the immune system and stress reduction. I love the idea of being in the forest as a cleansing, immersive experience.

I certainly didn’t need to have this kind of confirmation to know that walking in the forest is a great thing to do, but it’s nice to have your intuition validated by science.

Walking in the woods is a super easy way to improve your health, so get out there. Bonus points if you go with your sweetie and/or your dog. But don’t worry if you just can’t get out in the trees on a regular basis, either because you don’t have any near you or you’re not well enough. All of those physiological changes that the Japanese scientists found are still possible simply by eating a whole foods, plant-based diet. When I was sick, I tried to walk as often as I could for the mental benefits, but sometimes it was so difficult and painful it was downright depressing, even if it was good for me. As soon as I changed my diet, the exercise piece became easy and everything else fell into place.

Having a regular practice of forest bathing is as important to me as meditation is to some other people. I feel peaceful and energized all at once when I walk in the woods. It’s a part of my rejuvenated midlife that I hope I can continue for decades to come.


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