Trees save lives: why doctors are prescribing forest walks

    11 July 2016

    The sense of wellbeing that walking in a wood provides is tangible. Strolling through dappled sunlight, the peppery smell of pine needles all around, the crunch of twigs and the rustling of little creatures — even just conjuring up the mental image makes me feel relaxed.

    For centuries people have been immersing themselves in nature as a route to health. Think of Marvell’s 17th-century ‘green thought in a green shade’ or the Edwardian vogue for richly wooded spa towns in the Swiss Alps. Think of Henry David Thoreau, writing ‘I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived’.

    Recently, though, the practice of walking among trees has gained traction among health gurus and yogis alike. I know what you’re thinking — ‘things have come to a pretty pass when taking a walk becomes a health trend’. But hear me out: if nothing else, you can revel in the smugness of knowing that what you thought was good for you actually is good for you.

    Instead of walking in a wood the practice is called ‘forest bathing’. It originated in Asia and, like yoga and sushi, has spread to the west via — you guessed it — LA. The Japanese term is ‘shinrin-yoku’ which translates literally as ‘taking in the forest atmosphere.’ It was coined in 1982 by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. In Japan, shinrin-yoku is a government-endorsed policy. There are 55 official forest therapy trails, with more appearing all the time. Walkers on these trails have had their blood pressure (and sometimes urine) tested before setting off and after returning: invariably, they have lower blood pressure and fewer adrenalin-triggered stress hormones after a walk. There are also certified spas offering shinrin-yoku themed retreats.

    The craze has now caught on in America, where ‘forest bathing’ centres are popping up like woodland mushrooms, and is beginning to spread to England, too. The Armathwaite Hotel in the Lake District offers a two-night forest bathing spa package.

    It’s not just a pricey fad for spoilt city types, though. In 2008 the balance tipped between people living rurally and in urban settings. We spend most of the working day staring at a computer screen, and our leisure time is technology-focused, too, be it the cinema, gaming or simply messaging friends. We have disconnected from the natural world and we are suffering for it.

    Trees save lives. According to one study in the US, they avert $6.8 billion of American health costs annually. They clean polluted air, improve symptoms of asthma and looking at them even helps post-operative recovery time. Walking among them stops self-absorption and anxiety — the phytoncides, or ‘aromas of the forest’, promote serenity. There is also a theory that the awe inspired by nature reminds us of our insignificance in the universe: a modern version of the concept of the ‘sublime’.

    If all of that sounds like hippy twaddle, though, try this for size: after two nights in a forest, our levels of ‘killer’ white blood cells (that attack infection and tumours) soar by 50 per cent. The heart rate is also lowered.

    Although camping out in the woods a few times in a month is unachievable for most of us, we can all get a hit of shinrin-yoku’s benefits by simply going for a walk (ideally for two hours or more) in a wood.

    So now you know why tree-huggers always look so happy and zen. They are breathing in purer air, are happier, more selfless and better at fighting disease. They suffer less from stress and anxiety, and are connected to the natural world. Yet another reason to save the rainforests.