Nature Walks Can Start You Down Path to Good Health
Dr. Melanie Brown | Originally published in Mountain Times | October 1, 2022
We ran into friends at Wildwood Park for the second time a few weeks ago. When I said, “Fancy seeing you here again,” they asserted that nature walks were a part of their healthcare plan.
Brilliant! If only more people would think this way! No “magic pill” exists for good health, but nature cures! Time in nature is also preventative medicine.
Immerse Yourself in Nature
As part of nature, we have a deep sense of connection to the outdoors. Unfortunately, modern living has taken us inside, and our senses lack stimulation from the outside world. Most of us know the difference a 20-minute walk in the woods can make for our body, mind, and spirit.
Popularized in the 1980s in Japan, shinrin-yoku, or “forest-bathing,” is a practice of immersion in nature for physical and mental well-being.
The idea is to go to a forested area, leave your phone and worries behind, meander, enjoy wildlife, and connect to what is around you. Therefore, enjoying the sights and sounds and inhaling the smells of the forest rejuvenates our body and resets our psyche.
Why Nature Walks Improve Health
Science can help us to understand this phenomenon. And we can look to the air for answers. Trees and plants have natural essential oils containing volatile organic compounds called phytoncides to protect them from bacteria and fungi and from being eaten by animals and insects.
Trees release more phytoncides in warm weather and exist in the highest levels in cedars, conifers, spruces, pine, and oak trees. These trees emit a field of protection around themselves, changing the air we breathe in the forest.
Trees also use these compounds to communicate with each other. For example, they can release more phytoncides when attacked, warning other trees to secrete more into their bark to make them less appetizing. Scientists have discovered that these same compounds hold many health benefits for humans.
Health Benefits of Nature Walks
Inhaling phytoncides is known to increase the number of natural killer (NK) cells in the body’s circulatory system. NK cells are part of the body’s immune defenses. Part of their job is to seek and destroy tumorous and virus-ridden cells. For example, a 2009 Japanese study concluded that three days and two nights in the woods can translate to a measurable increase of NK cells in the blood for more than 30 days!
There are thousands of phytoncides with names like sabinene and camphene, and they have many health benefits. The benefits are vast and varied — from anti-inflammatory and gastroprotective to immune boosting and anti-depressive. Thus, spending time in nature increases mood, decreases stress, decreases blood pressure, and increases mental clarity, concentration, focus, creativity, and energy.
Consider adopting shinrin-yoku among the treatments that form your healthcare plan. As Hippocrates said, “Nature itself is the best physician.”